Taal Volcano is erupting just 40 miles (65 kilometres) south of the Philippines’ capital, triggering more than 50 earthquakes and spewing massive flashing clouds that have covered the region with ash and blasted particles the authorities described as “ballistic fragments.”

Manila’s airport was ordered closed, as was the country’s stock exchange Monday morning. Evacuations have begun, with planning for moving as many as 200,000 people. Officials ordered schools and government offices shut — and told private business to do the same.

Worse may be coming.

The volcano is, by all appearances, in “eruption.” Yet the nation’s scientists warn that the volcano is at imminent threat of a far more dangerous phase, in which the eruption would be aimed less at the sky and more on the land where people live.

A “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days,” the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said in an advisory Sunday as it raised the alert status to level four from one in less than 12 hours.

Volcanic activity at the main crater had intensified accompanied by steam-driven eruptions and which led to 52 volcanic earthquakes, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported early Monday morning.

The council said that it “strongly reiterates” evacuation from a 8.5 mile (14 kilometres) radius of the volcano.

Ninoy Aquino International Airport, in Manila, suspended all flights “until further notice” as ash began accumulating on ramps and runways, airport officials announced. Almost 170 flights have been cancelled.

More than 6,000 people have been so far evacuated around Taal. That figure may rise to more than 200,000 based on the contingency plan of Batangas province, which has said 11 of its towns and cities will be affected, according to Jovener Dupilas, information officer of Region IV-A’s Office of Civil Defense.

He said evacuations have also started in some parts of Cavite, a province that also neighbors Taal.

“Our problem is access to affected areas,” Dupilas said. “The ash fall is so thick and heavy that visibility is poor and some trees even fell.”

Taal Volcano is a tourist attraction and is among the nation’s most active volcanoes. The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Battered by about 20 typhoons annually, the country also sits on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Between 2000 and 2016, natural disasters in the Philippines caused over 23,000 deaths and affected 125 million people, according to the Asian Development Bank. The socioeconomic damage was about US$20 billion with average annual damage at US$1.2 billion, it said.

In 2018, tens of thousands were evacuated as Mayon Volcano, one of the Philippines’ major visitor attractions because of its near-perfect cone, erupted. There are 24 active volcanoes in the Philippines, with Taal considered the second-most active.

In December, 19 people died after a New Zealand volcano island unexpectedly erupted in a forceful explosion of scorching steam, gas and ash.

The Philippine volcanology agency “strongly reiterates total evacuation of Taal Volcano Island and additional evacuation of areas at high risk to pyroclastic density currents and volcanic tsunami within a 14-kilometer radius from Taal Main Crater,” it said.

“Civil aviation authorities must advise aircraft to avoid the airspace around Taal Volcano as airborne ash and ballistic fragments from the eruption column pose hazards to aircraft,” the agency said.

The entire volcano island is a permanent danger zone and communities around the Taal Lake shore should take precautionary measures, as well as be vigilant in case of lake-water disturbances, the agency said in a previous advisory.

There’s “danger that the affected area will be bigger than the island,” Philvolcs Director Renato Solidum told radio station DZZM earlier. “Airplanes shouldn’t fly through Taal and shouldn’t land where there is ash or where the ash will be blown.”

--With assistance from Siegfrid Alegado, Andreo Calonzo, Ditas Lopez and Claire Jiao.