Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dust My Pumice: a Puyehue Update

In its weekly update, the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program has given the most succinct summary yet of the eruption at Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcanic Complex, which began on Saturday and continues, with changing winds, to blow ash and pumice into Argentina even over Buenos Aires and into the Atlantic Ocean. The striking NASA photograph below shows the plume from the volcano as it blew southeast from the caldera toward the city of San Carlos de Bariloche - as this is cropped from a larger image, no scale appears, but it stretches about 75 km from northwest to southeast.

That, of course, is the view from space, but it tells us little of what’s happening on the ground. Only recently have I heard from friends directly affected on the Argentine side of the border, and I’ll use this post to pass on a few of their stories.

Bariloche-based Macarena Pérez Correa, a GIS specialist (and friend of mine) who produces a series of excellent maps of Patagonia and elsewhere, was on the Isla Grande de Chiloé when the eruption occurred. Finding her usual border crossing from Osorno to Villa La Angostura closed, she had to detour north to Pucón, cross the border at Mamuil Malal (pictured below, it's Paso Tromen to Argentines) and then continue south to her home - a detour of nearly 600 km.

Everything went fine as far as Junín de los Andes, on the Argentine side, where she filled the tank in clear, sunny weather. At Collón Curá, though, “I started seeing the clouds, and the cars going the other direction were leaving white clouds of ash behind them. Beyond Alicura I was in another dimension - in only a couple kilometers it became like night... I’m not exaggerating, there wasn’t a single ray of sunshine. It was copiously snowing ash and the cars that were fleeing in terror - I was the only fool going the other direction - were churning up the dust and I had to wait to continue, couldn’t even the see the car’s hood. It was like being inside a cloud, with a sensation that nothing else exists, that you were levitating…”

“What to do? I thought about turning back but it was impossible - if I crossed the road, a bus might hit me. I was ten km from Confluencia, a roadhouse with a gas station in the middle of nowhere…Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one, there were four other cars that wanted to get to Bariloche, where no ash was falling. But that was another 40 km of darkness until the light.”

“We came up with a plan. We put “masks” on all the vehicles - I used wet towels to cover the radiator - and we left in a caravan, me first because I was the only one with a pickup truck. That was good because I was the only one who could see ahead, with the rest of them behind me…fortunately, it started getting lighter after 20 km until finally, at the junction with the highway to Villa La Angostura there was no more ash falling. The snowplows had passed and there were about four inches of ash on the road. Cars were sliding around.”

Marcelo Ferrante, who operates Periko’s Hostel in downtown Bariloche and the Alaska Hostel on the city’s outskirts, wrote me yesterday that “we only recently got our Internet service back, before that were without electricity or broadband, though that was only in some parts of the city.”

“What we had in Bariloche was not so much ash as volcanic sand, which has caused a lot of problems, especially with the weight it puts on roofs. Obviously the airport has been closed since Saturday and will not reopen until June 20th, the start of the winter ski season.” Noting the same at her home west of town, Macarena noted “several centimeters of rough sand, but the cat’s contented - he thinks the entire garden’s one big litterbox…Everything’s suspended, no school, nobody knows anything, we’re all on indeterminate vacations.”

In the city of Neuquén, meanwhile, Gustavo Gil wrote me that the “ash started falling Monday afternoon, a fine gray dust that became more pumice-like, covering the cars and the streets, and they've closed the airport for three or four days.” My own guess is that it will be significantly longer - the body of water in the image above is Lago Barreales, a reservoir northwest of the city.

In Buenos Aires, Joaquín Allolio (Macarena’s father-in-law) tells me there’s no ashfall, with a cloud passing over the city yesterday, but that the situation is changing by the moment. According to Mercopress, all flights out of Buenos Aires and Montevideo are suspended until further notice, with the cloud of ash moving over the Río de la Plata at about 12,000 meters. Airports at Bariloche, Chapelco (San Martín de los Andes), Esquel, Trelew, Neuquén, Viedma and Bahía Blanca remain closed.

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