Ecuador’s Tungurahua Volcano erupted Sunday morning, blanketing a large area with ash and pumice and sending a plume of smoke three miles into the atmosphere. Risk management officials raised the alert level to orange, the second from the highest, and issued a notice asking for voluntary evacuations of nearby communities.
The Geophysical Institute said that continued activity was expected and said it would issue a warning if a larger eruption appeared imminent.
The volcano, 30 miles east of Ambato, registered an explosion that could be heard as far away as Guayaquil, 80 miles to the southwest. The explosion had been preceded by a number of small earthquakes. Residents of Ambato reported broken car windows due to rock fall.
Although the ash plume could not be seen close to the volcano due to cloud cover, it was clearly visible in Quito, 75 miles to the north.
Tungurahua’s new eruption is part of continued activity that began in 1999. Before that, it had been dormant for several decades.
Officials say that airports in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca remain open but closure is possible if Tungurahua’s ash cloud blows into air routes. Air travel has been halted on four occasions since 1999 due to airborne ash.
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 130 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 but not Cuenca.
Photo caption: Smoke from Tungurahua is visible in Quito; photo credit: El Comercio