Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Volcán Puyehue: the Latest Fallout

Following its spectacular June 4 eruption, the Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Complex appears to be slowly subsiding, but its effects are not going away any time soon. The prevailing westerlies have deposited most of the ash in Argentina, but some of it has carried all the way across the Pacific to Australia (as depicted in the NASA image above) and New Zealand (see NASA image below), where it has also disrupted flights. On Friday, Silvina Garay of Say Hueque Tours in Buenos Aires that “when I left work, I saw that my car was full of dust and today more than yesterday! Today all flights are cancelled - domestic and international. A real problem that’s affecting the entire country, keeping both tourists and residents from traveling.”

That continued through the weekend, but according to this morning’s Buenos Aires Herald, flights into and out of the city are due to resume today. The LAN Airlines website, however, states that flights into and out of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Montevideo are still suspended, along with trans-Pacific routes to Auckland (New Zealand) and Sydney (Australia). According to Raymond Poole, who wrote me from the Falkland Islands, the eruption has been a minor annoyance, with a small ash fall on one day - “LAN came and went as usual, the Airbridge [from the UK via Ascension Island] has been delayed for a few days, but is due today.”

While the delays have been a tremendous hardship to long-distance travelers unable to return home - some have been sleeping at BA’s international airport at Ezeiza (pictured above) for days - that’s not the only disruptive influence. My friend Joaquín Allolio, a wool consultant in Buenos Aires, sent me a note about eruption on the city and, especially, the Patagonian livestock industry: “Here in B.A., even inside the houses grey ashes were mixed with the usual city dust on the floors.”

“Flights are slowly resuming to central and northern domestic destinations, but all flights to Patagonia are suspended. Bariloche's airport, where at the moment only C - 130 Hercules and other propeller planes can land, is due to be re-opened on June 21, after the surrounding fields have been cleaned up, not only the runways.”

“The situation is very serious in the farming areas inside Río Negro, Jacobacci and Maquinchao being the most mentioned locations. They are seeking to declare a farming emergency, as they already had had long drought periods. The problem is double: ashes covering the scarce grasslands [the Argentine side of Patagonia is mostly desert or semi-desert, as in the photograph above], which they are trying to solve by bringing many forage bales for the smaller farmers especially. But ashes remain on top of the fleeces, helped by snow and/or rain to consolidate into a heavy ‘brick’ which weighs on the sheep and definitely weakens it.”

“This situation includes also Northern Chubut, and just while writing these lines, I spoke with my friend Sergio Pena, General Director of Livestock and Agriculture of the province, and he was just entering an emergency meeting at Trelew´s Chubut Valley Rural Society.”

“Fortunately, INTA Bariloche has taken quick action and, taking advantage especially of the experience gathered in 2008 when the Chaitén volcano erupted and sent its ashes into Argentine Patagonia, sent out three different reports on the situation, including definite recommendations for the growers, with practical advice how to cope with the situation.” Among other problems, the ash wears down the teeth so that sheep cannot feed properly, even when forage is available.

On the Chilean side, according to Montevideo-based Mercopress, Sernapesca Director Guillermo Rivera said that the eruption killed more than 4.5 million fish in the Río Nilahue, which descends from the north slope of the Cordón de Caulle into Lago Ranco - whose temperature rose to 113° F - briefly, at least, thus huge glacial remnant experienced hot springs temperatures . Some evacuees, though, have been allowed to return home and, again according to Mercopress, repairs of the road across the Paso Cardenal Samoré have commenced.

Immediately south of the eruption zone, Armin Dübendorfer of the Zapato Amarillo B&B in Puerto Octay reports little damage on and around Lago Llanquihue, but his vision of the first days is vivid: “We could see a huge column of smoke and ash forming an impressive mushroom 10-12 km high. Sunday we went to Lago Puyehue, but couldn’t see much because of all the ash in the atmosphere. At night there were electrical storms and lightning. After Monday a Pacific storm with strong winds carried most of the ash to Villa La Angostura and Bariloche. Wednesday we could see the column of smoke again, and it has subsided to only half its previous height.”

On the Argentine side, Jane Williams of Estancia Huechahue, which specializes in horseback trips in Argentina’s Neuquén province but also hosts fly-fishermen, reports that “we have some ash but no more than Esquel got from Chaiten, and they say the fishing was great there that year!” On the Chubut coast, a press communiqué from the town of Puerto Pirámides claims that, “despite the so-called rain of ashes that affects a large part of Chubut province, all services at the town of Puerto Pirámides are operating normally, particularly whale-watching, accommodations, restaurants and overland transportation.” What this doesn’t mention, of course, is the difficulty of getting to the nearest airport, at Puerto Madryn or Trelew, to be able to visit Península Valdés. Even presuming you can get to Buenos Aires, the overland trip to Chubut is a long one.

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