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Volcanic ash falls east of Cuenca as activity at the Sangay volcano intensifies

The Sangay volcano at night.

Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute is cautioning residents to avoid direct exposure to the volcanic ash falling in eastern Azuay Province. The institute says the ash is from the Sangay volcano, 70 miles north of Cuenca, which has been in an active phase since May but has recently intensified.

A man walks through debris left from lahars flowing from the Sangay volcano.

Although most of the ashfall was light, some communities reported accumulations of a half centimeter. Among the towns affected are Paute, Chordeleg and Gualaceo.

In Morona Santiago Province, where Sangay is located, officials are worried that rivers near the volanco could be blocked by debris coming from the volcano, posing a flooding risk. “Because of increased lava flow in recent weeks, lahars are coming down the mountain carrying trees and rocks with them and this material is flowing into the rivers,” volcanologists reported. “If rivers become blocked and later unblock this creates flooding concerns downstream.”

Sangay is a stratovolcano, the closest volcano to Cuenca and the only one in southern Ecuador. In two massive prehistoric eruptions, it sent so much volcanic material into the atmosphere that the world’s temperature declined for several years by three to four degrees Centigrade. Since records have been kept, there have been significant eruptions in 1628, 1728, 1849, 1903 and 1934. Several eruptions resulted in loss of human life and extensive damage to agriculture.

The volcano’s elevation is 5,300 meters, or 17,400 feet, but it was once estimated to have reached 7,600 to 9,100 meters (25,000 feet to 30,000) before an eruption about 40,000 years ago caused much of it to collapse.

Because Sangay is located in a remote area and is difficult to access, the threat to human life during eruptions is minimal, volcanologists say. The government established the Sangay National Park in 1984 to protect the region’s unique plant and animal life.

The Geophysical Institute advises those experiencing ashfall to take protective measures to protect their eyes and throats.