Officials keep close tabs on Tungurahua and say a major volcanic eruption is possible; evacuation plans readied

Jan 19, 2010 | 0 comments

Volcanologists and government officials are keeping a close watch on Tungurahua, in the central Ecuadorian Andes, making plans for evacuations if volcanic activity increases.

Scientists and officials gathered at Tungurahua over the weekend to assess the situation. Along with thousands of local on-lookers, they witnessed small lava flows and volcanic rocks raining down on the area near the crater. Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute issued a statement Friday noting that while activity near the crater remained stable there were indications of increased activity at lower levels within the volcano.

At 16,450 feet, Tungurahua, is one of the most prominent of Ecuador’s 11 volcanoes. It has been in an active phase since 1999 but has not erupted since 2006. The volcano is 90 miles south of Quito.

Ecuador Health Minister Caroline Chang, says her office is working on plans to carry out evacuations. “We are working on a risk map to identify needs and should have this completed by Jan. 22,” she said. “We are urging people to be calm but, at the same time, to be alert.”

The major concern for officials is the tourist town of Baños, population 15,000, on the north flank of Tungurahua. The town’s residents were evacuated in 1999 but most returned within months despite the fact that ash and small rocks continued to pelt the area.

Studies conducted following the 1999 eruption have concluded that Baños is one the most vulnerable communities in the world. Craig Mathern, a Colorado volcanologist in Ecuador to study Tungurahua, say the death toll would be high in the event of a major eruption. “A lot of people claim that Baños is protected by the fact that the crater is tilted away from town. What they forget is that the crater was created by an earlier explosion. If there’s a major blow, Baños and the people living there would cease to exist.”

Mathern and others point out that the geography of the area south of Tungurahua leave few escape routes for residents in case of a major eruption. “The crater is less than four miles from town. There would simply not be enough time for people to get away from a large eruption.”

Tungurahua is 150 miles north of Cuenca and poses no direct threat to the city, officials say. In the eruptions of 1999 and 2006, ash clouds blew from east to west, affecting coastal cities and disrupting air travel.

Tungurahua, just north of Baños de Ambato, has been spewing ash, rock and lava since Dec. 31.

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