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When will Indonesia's volcano blow?

SURABAYA, Indonesia – Will it? Won't it? Has it already erupted? From my vantage point here in Surabaya, guessing what's going on with Mount Kelud is the most popular game in town. It's headline news; Indonesia's television stations reporting regular live updates from somber-faced correspondents camped on the steep slopes of one of country's deadliest volcanoes.

The brooding volcano sits around fifty miles southwest of us here in Indonesia's second city. Its alert status has been at the highest level for more than two weeks, and experts say an eruption is imminent.

My driver wasn't so sure, though.

"Maybe yes, maybe no," he told me, throwing his hands into the air – a sort of resigned, fatalistic gesture that I've noticed is very common when it comes to Kelud. My hotel receptionist stuck her neck out a little further: "They always say that," she said of the country's excitable vulcanologists.

The experts think they have their facts right. Indonesia sits on a belt of intense seismic activity known as the Pacific "Ring of Fire." The country has 70 active volcanoes, more than any other country, so the experts have plenty of hands-on experience.

Evacuation orders

Kelud means "sweeper" in Javanese, because of its historic reputation for sweeping everything away when it erupts. And rather like dealing with a patient in intensive care, the scientists have been monitoring Kelud's vital signs for weeks, sensors recording every huff, puff and tremor.

And right now, they say, they have the geological equivalent of a life-support machine gone berserk. It could erupt at any minute.

"There's been a partial lifting of the lava dome at the top, as well as a strong drift of heated winds upwards," they reported Monday – which to you and I means the mountain is about to blow its top.

Orders have gone out to evacuate tens of thousands of people living on the slopes of the 5,700-foot volcano. Officials point out that Kelud killed 30 people when it last erupted in 1990 and more than 5,000 in 1919.

The problem for the experts – and the government – is that not everybody shares their urgency. Many of those in the danger area are refusing to leave their homes, in spite of a compulsory evacuation order, preferring to stay and look after their land and livestock.

And many Indonesians trust age-old mystic traditions, rather than scientists. Last year, when Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia, was rumbling, and experts warned it would erupt at any minute, residents preferred to listen to Maridjan, the 70-year-old "gatekeeper" of the mountain, who has been conversing with its spirits for decades.

To the irritation of the government, the soothsayer told the villagers to stay at home. He said Merapi was merely throwing a tantrum and that nothing would come of it.

He was right.

Banana leaves for protection

It's not clear whether Kelud has a gatekeeper, but the Jakarta Post today reported that some residents were hiding in the forests, with others placing banana leaves in front of their homes, believing this will protect them from the blazing lava, should it come.

The standing of the experts hasn't been helped by a false alarm over the weekend, when they announced Kelud had erupted, only to backtrack later. Monday they admitted they were a little baffled as to why it wasn't behaving as predicted, when their readings were now so strong, they could no longer be measured.

One theory is that hardened lava from previous eruptions could be blocking the release of magma, which could make for an even bigger eruption once sufficient energy has built up. Or the hardened lava could perhaps prevent a major eruption.

Scientists also said today that measuring equipment in the volcano's crater lake has been damaged. They said they are no longer able to monitor its temperature.

"We are now left with four seismic quake detectors and two deformation detectors," one scientist said. And if they break? I guess there are always the banana leaves and the soothsayer!