The Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador’s central Andes continues to show signs of increasing activity, forcing an early end to the school year for hundreds of students in the town of Baños.
The school closings were announced shortly after civil defense authorities ordered mandatory evacuations of 11 villages on the flanks of the volcano.
After four years of relatively minor activity, Tungurahua came to life May 27 in an eruption that sent ash ten kilometers into the atmosphere and gas, rock and lava flowing from the crater. The eruption sent a plume of ash to the west and southwest, enveloping Guayaquil and closing the city’s international airport for two days. Following the eruption, activity had subsided until Monday night when it began to intensify.
According to the director of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, Hugo Yepes, Tungurahua continues to pose grave danger. “I made a statement last weekend, when the activity subsided, that there could still be another major eruption. This is still a very active volcano and the activity will continue to build.”
Since Tuesday morning, residents within 50 miles of Tungurahua have heard loud explosions and experienced frequent earth tremors. The explosions were heard clearly in the cities of Riobamba and Ambato.
Yerpes says that he believes the strengthening will continue. "The explosions and constant vibrations tell us this and we need to pay attention.”
The evacuation of Baños, a popular tourist destination, remains voluntary but officials at the Geophysical Institute said they are concerned about the safety of the town’s 16,000 residents. “Baños is located in a very vulnerable position in relation to the volcano. We worry that the ‘false alarms’ of the past, especially in 1999, have made many of the residents complacent.”
Located seven miles north of Tungurahua, Baños is considered by many geologists to be one of the most endangered communities in the world in terms of volcanic activity. Greg Morrison, a university researcher in Colorado who has conducted field work at Tungurahua, says that Baños could be “wiped off the face of the earth” in the case of a major eruption. “There are rankings of the most dangerous places to live in the world and Baños makes the top five in all of them. In the case of a big eruption, most of the evacuation routes out of town would be cut off. Thousands of people could die.”
Morrision says that there is a misconception that because the crater is tilted away from the town that Baños would not be destroyed. “What people forget is that a volcanic crater is simply a function of the last major eruption. When the next big one comes the crater is blown away and the pyroclastic flows cut new paths down the mountain.”
Photo caption: Two views of Tungurahua; photo credit: Reuters