Japanese volcano awakens with a vengeance
By North Asia correspondent Mark Willacy
Updated 4 hours 4 minutes ago
Volcanic lightning strikes above Shinmoedake peak as it erupts. (Reuters: Minami-Nippon Shimbun)
Officials in southern Japan have urged more than 1,000 residents of a town near an erupting volcano to evacuate amid reports of large rocks falling in the area.
Mount Shinmoe's first major eruption in almost 200 years is sending plumes of ash and rocks kilometres into the sky.
The eruption, on the southern island of Kyushu, has disrupted flights and train services and sparked warnings about another, even more powerful blast.
More than 600 people have already been evacuated.
Vulcanologists say a giant lava dome on the volcano has now grown to more than 500 metres in diameter.
For some people living near the volcano it is nothing more than a nuisance, but for others it is like a biblical curse.
"It's good that it's not hovering in the air," a used car lot owner said, taking a break from shovelling up the mess.
"But it's getting heavier and harder to clean up. This ash piled up on the cars will be hard to remove," he complained, as his once immaculate lot of cars sits under centimetres of grey paste - the windscreen wipers on each vehicle sticking forlornly up in the air.
The mayor of Takaharu, a town near the volcano, says people have never seen Mount Shinmoe like it is.
"It's the first time the people of my community have experienced volcanic ash like this, so we are very concerned about their health," Mitsuhiro Hidaka said.
With 108 active volcanoes, or 10 per cent of the world's total, Japan shakes precariously on the infamous Pacific Rim of Fire.
The Japanese are wearily familiar with eruptions like Mount Shinmoe's, but scientists warn there could be worse to come.
In the past nine months vulcanologists estimate seven million cubic metres of magma has accumulated in two vast reservoirs underneath the peak and small pyroclastic flows, or super-heated clouds of gas travelling at up to 700 kilometres per hour, have been seen sweeping down Mount Shinmoe.
The volcano's behaviour is said to be eerily similar to its belligerent demeanour 300 years ago, when it belched and bellowed on and off for 18 months.
For the people living around Shinmoedake, this is just the latest biblical-style cataclysm.
"We're still recovering from the foot and mouth outbreak," Mr Mitsuhiro said.
"Then came the avian flu. Now the first eruption of the Shinmoedake volcano in 52 years. It is indeed a triple blow of disasters we're suffering from now."