As Volcán Chaitén continues to smolder, the Chilean government has completed the evacuation of its namesake port. Nicholas La Penna of Chaitur sent me the photo of the initial evacuation, which took place last Saturday, on the Navimag ferry Evangelistas, which was diverted from its southbound itinerary to the Patagonian tourist town of Puerto Natales.
Even as the evacuation ends and Chaitén emits massive clouds of ash (the photograph here also comes from Nicholas La Penna), there are conflicting reports over whether lava flows might breach the crater and descend the Río Blanco into town. The best report I have read is an interview with vulcanologist Alfredo Lahsen in the Santiago daily La Tercera, in which he says that the viscous lava would likely advance no more than five or ten meters per hour. In such a case, it would take at least 40 days to reach the town. A more serious danger, suggests Lahsen, would be forest fires in this lushly wooded area.
There is also a good English language summary of current conditions at Mercopress, in which a Chilean government geologist says any lava flow is unlikely to reach Chaitén, but that hot ash and volcanic bombs could. This could be disastrous in a town whose structures are almost all built of wood - and with no one there to fight any fires.
Meanwhile, Carolina Morgado of the Parque Pumalín conservation project writes me that they have withdrawn all park personnel from the El Amarillo area, which lies directly in the route of the ashfall, but the rest of the park remains fully staffed. The conservative Santiago daily El Mercurio, meanwhile, implies that the eruption indicates an urgent need to complete the Carretera Austral from Hornopirén to Chaitén, as there is no continuous overland connection from mainland Chile except via Argentina.
Such a road is controversial because it would pass through the rugged terrain of Pumalín's almost untouched forests, and the park's founder Douglas Tompkins has been haggling for years with the government over an appropriate route that would minimize environmental damage. That's not all that's at stake, however, as private interests hoping to build massive hydroelectric dams in the southern Aisén region would want to use any such route to run thousands of km of transmission lines to energy-starved Santiago and the copper mines of northern Chile. Such lines would, of course, impact the landscape even more, and be vulnerable to events such as the current eruption. The current event has also proved the limited usefulness of motor vehicles in such emergencies, as many had to be abandoned because their electrical systems failed because of the ashfall.
Meanwhile, in Futaleufú, buses have taken most remaining residents across the border into Argentina, and will soon cross the border into Chile via the Cardenal Samoré pass, north of the city of Bariloche (a friend there, by the way, writes me that there is a big ash cloud to the south/southeast). From Futaleufú, Vicki Lansen writes that rain has reduced the four inches of ash to a "clay slurry." The Buenos Aires daily Clarín reports that ash clouds have passed over the southern Buenos Aires province beach resorts of Mar del Plata and Necochea.
In fact, it seems that the government and private response to the emergency has been remarkably effective, and it's hard to imagine that a winding mountain road through almost impossibly steep terrain on the Chilean side of the border would have improved it. What would help is an improved ferry system - it was good fortune that ferries were in port and nearby when the event began - and better integration with Argentine Patagonia.