A large explosion sent clouds of ash and gas more than four kilometers into the sky on Wednesday, signaling an intensification of activity at the Cotopaxi volcano. In previous emissions, the clouds at reached a maximum height of two kilometers. Ash from Wednesday’s emission drifted west and northwest from the volcano.
Residents reported the strong smell of sulfur gas within 20 miles of the volcano and Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute said it recorded several swarms of small earthquakes near the mountain.
Wednesday’s explosion followed three days in which activity at the volcano had remained relatively steady.
Ecuador Security Minister César Navas said on Wednesday that Ecuador faced an “unprecedented disaster” in the case of a large eruption. “This will directly affect Cotopaxi, Pichincha and Napo Provinces, but could indirectly affect the lives of every one the country,” he said.
Navas said that 300,000 thousand people are at risk, of which 160,000 live in the populous Pichinhca Province, where Quito to located. He said that lahars, avalanches caused by ice melt from the Cotopaxi glacier, poses the greatest risk. Depending on the amount of lava emitted in an eruption, Navas said that pyroclastic flows could also spread for miles from the crater.
“We are looking at the record of the 1877 eruption and the effects of such an eruption today would be very serious,” he said. “Besides loss of life, there would be massive destruction of infrastructure that could take a long time to rebuild.”
Navas said he is satisfied so far with preparations. “Our plans would help 200,000 people so we have seen a large mobilization in a large area,” he said, adding, “We still have much more to do.”
Navas denied complaints by some critics that the reports of the Geophysical institute are being censored. “This is not true. We are disseminating the most important information from the Institute but we need to emphasize the information that will make sure the population is prepared. Since our purpose is to save life and property, we have nothing to gain by withholding information.”
He said that the decision of his office to deny the television channel Ecuavisa’s request to broadcast a documentary about the volcano was based on the need to focus on measures to prepare the population, not on the possible results of a large eruption. Navas said that most of the documentary was approved but he said that parts of it about a large potential death toll could cause undue alarm and did not serve the function of preparation.