Editor’s note: George Lassiter is a retired geology professor and researcher who conducted field studies of Ecuador’s volcanoes in the 1990s. Last month, he wrote on article on the volcanic history of Cotopaxi, click here, and had commented earlier in an article about Cuenca’s exposure to the effects of a Cotopaxi eruption, click here. He lives part-time in Cuenca.
By George Lassiter
It’s been called volcano fatigue and it’s what happens when human patience for waiting for a volcano to erupt wears thin. It’s when the population and sometimes even the governments let their guard down after they have made intensive preparations.
Reading the Ecuadorian newspapers and websites, I worry that the fatigue is beginning to set in in the case of the Cotopaxi volcano.
On Sunday, a Quito newspaper quoted a shop owner in Latacunga saying he believes the danger has passed. “There is no more ash coming down and all there is just a little steam coming out of the mountain now,” he said. “I think we will get back to our normal lives soon.”
About 2,000 years ago, a scribe in the Roman town of Pompeii quoted a town manager saying almost the same thing. If anyone wants to meet the manager, he’s on permanent display today, encased in volcanic plaster, in the excavated ruins of Pompeii.
In 1980, several days before Mount St. Helens erupted, police had to turn back residents who demanded to return to their homes. In a documentary of the volcano, a woman tells a reporter, “I’ve lived with the volcano all my life and I’m not afraid of it. I’m ready to go home.” Three days later, the woman’s husband used a back trail to bypass the police roadblock and made his way back to the couple’s home. He was never seen again.
Today, near Cotopaxi, I think much of the fatigue and the belief in some sectors that things are returning to normal, are the fault of the government. The twice-daily volcano updates, issued by the government and reported in the newspapers and on television and radio, are short and emphasize the amount of gas and ash leaving the crater. The volcanic activity levels noted in the reports, “low” and “moderate” in recent days, are confusing and simplistic, and provide little information about what to expect in the coming days.
The most important part of the reports appears at the bottom and, depending on the day, says that magma below the volcano is moving and may be rising toward the surface, and that internal pressure is building. Nowhere have I seen it reported that the logical outcome of this situation is a large explosion and a possible eruption.
Although the information provided to the public comes from scientists at the Geophysical Institute, it is overly condensed and and does include the detailed notes that the institute compiles.
As a service to citizens, government should emphasize that the danger level is higher than ever. Otherwise, a sense of complacency will continue to grow.
Another example of volcano fatigue is happening 50 miles south of Cotopaxi, at Tungurahua. In this case, the fatigue dates back 15 years when that volcano began its current active phase. On Friday and Saturday, boulders weighing half a ton were ejected from the volcano following explosions and earthquakes. Streams of lava were also observed flowing from the crater. As far I can tell, only two newspapers carried reports of this activity.
More than ever, it is time for Ecuadorians living in the vicinity of either Cotopaxi and Tungurahua to remain alert. It is also time for the government to emphasize the imminent danger.