Although the Cotopaxi volcano is no longer making headlines, towns near the 19,400-foot-high behemoth remain on alert for an eruption. Federal and local officials continue to warn residents that the volcano, 40 miles southeast of Quito, remains in an active phase and could erupt with little warning.
Cotopaxi is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes and geologists have warned that a large-scale eruption could kill tens of thousands. “If we have a recurrence of the magnitude of eruptions we have seen over the last several hundred years, hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” says volcanologist Randal Ashland, who has studied Ecuador’s volcanoes since the 1980s. “Potentially, an eruption could be the most deadly natural disaster in human history.”
Quito’s office of municipal security says it is doing all it can to keep residents close to Cotopaxi prepared. “It is hard since people became complacent when the level of activity at the volcano declined last year,” says Juan Zapata, municipal director of security. “We have to keep repeating: the danger remains very real, please remain alert.”
Zapata’s office will conduct a large-scale preparation drill this weekend in the Los Chillos Valley, east of Quito. The valley, which has become densely populated since the last large eruption of Cotopaxi 200 years ago, was a conduit for large lahars and lava flows over thousands of years. “Almost all the habitations in Los Chillos are built on lava and debris from past volcanic ertuptions,” he says. “People need to understand what this means.”
The weekend drill will be the 32nd since Cotopaxi reactivated in 2015 and involves all levels of government, Zapata says.
Plumes of steam and gas have been visible recently above Cotopaxi but Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute does not believe it indicates an immediate reactivation of internal activity. The institute says, however, that this could change within a matter of days.