Mayon Watch: Mariton Bornas (Part 1 of a series)

After being disillusioned by the rat race in her previous work at a company in the private sector in 1995, Ma. Antonia “Mariton” V. Bornas joined the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), where she is now the chief of Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division.

Bornas, who grew up in Makati City, did not initially plan to be a volcanologist. Her father was from Nabua town in Camarines Sur so she remembers visiting there as a child and seeing Mount Asog (sometimes called Mount Iriga), an active volcano in the Bicol volcanic chain.

CHIEF BORNAS. Mariton Bornas, the chief of Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division, monitors Mayon through the Mayon Volcano Observatory at Ligñon Hill in Legazpi City. (RA Ostria/Ibalio Stories)

Educated in the University of the Philippines-Diliman in her undergraduate as a Geology student and in Hokkaido University for her postgraduate studies, she is now taking a sandwich PhD program at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

“For my first job, I worked a year and a half for oil industry consultants and explorationists,” she said.

After graduating with a degree in Geology, she said her first concern was to get a job and so she applied for a job in the private sector before finally deciding in 1995 that she wants to be in the service sector.

As a fledgling geologist in Phivolcs, she was immediately involved in a team that worked and studied the hazardous lahar conditions of Mt. Pinatubo, one of the country’s active volcanos in the Zambales Mountains. With her involvement in the team, she became a volcanologist.

Most of the work she did already involved a lot of work in lahar monitoring and impact assessment.

“When I think about [Pinatubo] now, [the conditions around the volcano] is really mind-boggling. The landscape was always changing. After one lahar, one village is buried and the bridges are washed away, so much so that they did not build permanent bridges.”

She said that the frustrations regarding how communities should have behaved for their safety and the shortcomings of scientists still remain with her but it was the dynamic work in Pinatubo and the tragedies she has witnessed that changed her and taught her the importance of what good volcanological work can mean to communities.

“I was moved by the ever-changing geologic conditions of the lahar drainages and the huge and often disastrous impacts these caused to the people living beside affected rivers. It was the school of hard knocks in the field and I immediately bonded with people in communities at volcanic risk,” Bornas said, recalling why she decided to become a volcanologist.

Pros and cons

Bornas said that being a volcanologist is not easy.

“It is a difficult job, you need to be physically fit, have to be on call all the time, keep up with the burgeoning science of the international volcanological community and learn a lot of theoretical and practical skills.”

There are some things she is not fond of as a volcanologist: the political side of disaster mitigation.

“Scientists deal with and act on facts and have difficulties with political concerns and agendas that are in conflict with scientific wisdom,” she said.

But, she said, what makes being a volcanologist interesting is that one is always in touch with the international community of scientists and with the public.

She also said that witnessing volcanic eruptions and knowing exactly why it happens and what is going on is her favorite part of the job.

“Volcanos are amazing and they are intimately linked with human society, safety, and disaster in the Philippines,” she said of what it is about studying volcanos that draws her to it.

“As Filipino volcanologists, we have an important service to provide to our fellowmen,” she said.

Working on Mayon

“Mayon is quite special because it is our most active volcano and like many stratovolcanos, its activity is quite difficult to predict,” Bornas said, noting that in the volcano’s current high level of unrest, they were caught unawares when it suddenly had a minor eruption without first showing precursory signs such as earthquakes.

“We have to be on our toes all the time and keep our vast monitoring networks at optimum efficiency all the time; yet, it keeps frustrating us with its every activity by behaving in a different way in terms of monitoring parameters.”

For Bornas, that characteristic of Mayon and other stratovolcanos is challenging, interesting, and frustrating all at the same time.

Bornas has worked on all active volcanos in the country save Parker Volcano and Matutum Volcano, which are both in Cotabato.

Bornas likens Mayon Volcano to the open-vent volcanos like the Popocatépetl in Mexico and Cotapaxi in Ecuador, both volcanos have magmatic systems that can openly degas, which means that they emit large amount of sulfur dioxide and other degassing emissions every day.

“If a volcano degases magma continuously, it changes its magmatic system’s properties and its character. Essentially, they can erupt without warning,” Bornas said.

Bornas said that how Mayon and other volcanos behave are already mostly understood by volcanologists.

“There are certain volcano behaviors mostly related to the timing of the unrest and how they are related to mineral resources,” she said.

In the Philippines, gold is commonly derived from old volcanos. One of the researches done today is what properties and conditions of magma can generate these deposits.

Like forensic science

Volcanologists also reconstruct the history of active volcanos, which is what Bornas does.

“It is always fun to do because it’s like forensic science. It is like reconstructing a crime scene.”

She studies the eruptive history of volcanoes, how they behaved in the past, and how they formed their edifice by looking at their deposit.”

Life-threatening experiences

When Bornas was new to the job, it was the peak of the lahar crisis in Pinatubo.

“I was doing a field work with a group of scientists from the United States and my colleagues in Phivolcs at the river channel of Pasig-Potrero, where it was raining all the time. We were already a bit miserable because we were soaking wet all day so we did not realize that lahars were already forming,” she recalled.

But the lahars were noticed by their Aeta guides, who then dragged them to the high terraces.

“That was really a close call because we were almost caught in the lahar, and yet, the US scientists were thrilled to see how lahar was formed, but at the same time, we said, ‘Wait a minute. Didn’t we almost die a few minutes ago?’” she said.

In 2001, when Phivolcs was monitoring Pinatubo crater before it broke out. Phivolcs feared that if breached and a huge mass of body of water breaks out, it will cause humongous lahars and hit the town of Botolan.

“We were still daring then. There was a bit of distance from where we stood to the point where a breach might happen so we tied ropes at the side of the caldera wall. Sometimes, we would just swim it. In hindsight, it was actually quite dangerous.”

It was. And their team realized it only when they were caught in the middle of a thunderstorm.

“If the lightning hits the water we will all get electrocuted.”

Information collected

In keeping watch over Mayon Volcano, Bornas explains that Phivolcs gets round-the-clock real-time information on volcanic activities, its ground deformation, the sulfur dioxide emission, the infrasonic data or the sound produced by the volcano when it is erupting, and continuous water-well data.

When the volcano is in unrest, Phivolcs observes the surface processes that they do not see in quiescence like crater glows, which has a corresponding alert level. They also observe the rock fall events, the direction where volcanic mass flows advance, and occurrences of and areas covered by lahars.

Volcanos have produced most of the ocean floor of the world, Bornas said.

“There’s also a school of thought that the primeval atmosphere of Earth was actually produced by volcanism. And of course, large-scale volcanic activity has caused various effects on the climate and subsequent mass extinctions,” Bornas said.

The Great Dying, or the Permian extinction, is believed to have been caused by Siberian volcanic eruptions 250 million years ago.

Bornas said that supervolcanos like the Yellowstone in the United States, Lake Toba in Indonesia, and Siberian Traps in Russia scientists may have the same effects.

“Once one of any of those volcanoes erupt, it will cause mass extinction,” Bornas said. “But volcanoes have positive impacts to the world. First, they are very fertile.”

Most fertile agricultural lands are on volcanic terrain thanks to the minerals produced when they erupt. This is why there are many farming communities around the volcano.

“Secondly, because they are prominent land forms, they form the watershed areas of the many regions. They are [communities’] sources of water,” she said. All of these make volcanoes important for biodiversity and benefactors to mankind.

Studying volcanoes also help in studying volcanoes. Other planets and satellites exhibit features linked to volcanism.

New technology

Bornas also said that if the technology today were present during the lahar crisis in Pinatubo, there would have been minimal effects to communities.

“I always say it is like we are starting all over again with our new systems that are very sensitive,” she said.

Phivolcs can now detect and interpret what they were unable to with limited resources.

“This is what happened in Kanlaon and here in Mayon. If we had these technology we have today, Phivolcs would have helped even better in the Pinatubo lahar crisis and the crater lake breakout crisis. It would have had a different outcome,” she said.


The volcano monitoring division of Phivolcs is obligated to give data to their principal stakeholders other than the local government units.

One stakeholder is the Office of Civil Defense, which has the infrastructure to disseminate information and instigate action up to the local government units.

They are also obligated to give advisories to the aviation sector within 10 minutes of major and minor eruptions .

“We release volcano observatory notice for aviation (VONA) to volcanic ash advisory centers (VAAC) of the world so they can warn airmen,” Bornas said.

These are reported to the Tokyo VAAC and Darwin VAAC, to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, the office of the press secretary in Malacañang, and the Department of Science and Technology secretary.

Volcanic ash are damaging to aircrafts especially if they make their way into the engine where they can jam or wreck it. Once they coat airplanes, ashes also make planes heavier.

Part 2: Ed Laguerta
Part 3: What is lahar?
Part 4: Don’t judge Mayon’s alert level by the pics you see online
Part 5: Non-local Heroes

See also: #MayonWatch2018: Everything You Need To Know About Mayon’s Eruption

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