Saturday, May 10, 2008

From Fire to Ice

Having completed the evacuation of Chaitén, Chilean authorities are unwilling to say when - if ever - its residents might be able to return to the volcano-threatened port on the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway). One government geologist has speculated that a worst-case "Pompeii scenario" is not out of the question and, if that happens, Chaitén could literally be history. Hot ash and pyroclastic flows could set the town on fire and, with no one around fight the blazes, nothing more than foundations might remain.

The volcano has already expelled two cubic kilometers of ash, but the prevailing westerlies have carried most of the material west and southwest, as the accompanying image suggests. A friend from the Argentine provincial capital of Neuquén wrote me that ash reached there Wednesday and it's carrying east into southern Buenos Aires province. Because of the ash clouds, Argentine airlines have postponed flights into the affected areas and, for one night at least, American Airlines postponed departures out of Buenos Aires back to the United States.

One could argue, of course, that Aerolíneas Argentinas often fails to fly in any event, and last week Spain's Marsans group agreed to sell most of the troubled company back to Argentine interests. The Argentine government will acquire about 20 percent of the shares, but most will be in the hands of as yet unidentified local interests. Whether any of this will improve services is open to question.

Meanwhile, Vicki Lansen writes from Futaleufú, which was mostly evacuated earlier this week, that she and her husband have decided to remain for the time being; the bank has reopened, and the Río Futaleufú appears to be running clear, with no evidence of fish kills, but the water supply is suspect. She adds that "Roving bands of young men with long, home-made roof sweepers are menacing the town. Random acts of kindness, fellowship and senses of humor are rampant."

Farther south, on the Argentine side of the Andes, it was announced that the town of El Calafate, gateway to the famous Moreno Glacier, will soon have its own glaciology museum, the Museo de Hielo. Apparently, however, this 2,000-square-meter project will be a privately funded facility that has nothing to do directly with President Cristina Fernández and her husband, ex-President Néstor, who own property in town and habitually spend weekends there.

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