Ecuador Prepares for Eruption of Glacier-Covered Volcano

Ecuador contains one of the densest concentrations of volcanoes on the planet. At last count, 84 volcanic centers straddle the Andes mountains, which run through the country north to south. As many as 24 of those volcanoes are potentially active and some are covered in glaciers, which compound the threat of an eruption with the addition of ice and glacier debris. A history of major eruptions and recent volcanic activity, including on the glaciated stratovolcano Cotopaxi, has unnerved Ecuadorian citizens and prompted government action.

On April 19, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued an early action protocol (EAP) to ameliorate the health, livelihood, and food security impacts of ash fallout from volcanic eruptions on Ecuadorian communities.

The EAP is the result of a project, spearheaded by the German Red Cross, to coordinate forecast-based financing to reduce the impact of extreme natural disasters in 20 countries. Ecuador was selected to receive support for a volcanic ash fallout plan.

Cotopaxi spews ash on August 17, 2015 (Source: WikiCommons).

When a volcano erupts, there is often a period of unrest, precursor signals of an eruption, in which ash is spewed from the volcano. Ash fallout can affect health, livelihoods, and food security for people living in the deposition zone. Unrests can be prolonged events, like that of Cotopaxi in 2015, which lasted four months and did not result in an eruption – yet. Unrests can be longer, shorter, or there can be no sign of unrest at all.

The early action protocol cites its objective to “establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas.” The early actions identified were based on the ash fall produced by eruptions over the past 20 years, including that of Cotopaxi, which is located 31 miles south of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. A major eruption would rain ash on the three million inhabitants of Quito and disrupt air travel.

The phases of early action for ash fall depend on the depth of forecasted ash deposition: distribution of health protection kits for ash fall between two and five millimeters, a livelihood protection package to protect livestock and harvested crops from ash fall between five and ten millimeters, and the addition of cash-based interventions for ash fall greater than ten millimeters.  

Benjamin Bernard, a volcanologist at the Geophysical Institute of Ecuador’s National Polytechnical School (IG-EPN), works with the Ecuadorian Red Cross and the Red Cross Climate Center. According to Bernard, the objective of the project is to reduce the impact of extreme events based on scientific forecasts and early actions.

“This EAP is a significant improvement because in Ecuador, until this project, humanitarian financing was only for response to the emergency,” Bernard told GlacierHub. “It has already been proven in this project that early actions can significantly reduce the impact of extreme weather conditions and we hope that it will do the same for volcanic eruptions.”

In 2017, The Atlantic published an article titled “The ‘Anticipatory Anxiety’ of Waiting for Disaster,” which documented the trauma of Ecuadorians living in the shadow of Cotopaxi. Patricia Mothes, a volcanologist with Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, told the magazine, “Of the five eruptive periods from 1532 to now—and this is number six—it always ends (or at least has) in a major eruption.”

Ahead of the anticipated major eruption, however, falling ash disrupts life for communities in the vicinity of Cotopaxi.

Ash fall from eruptions can have a significant health and economic impacts for downslope communities. “In previous events of ash fall, people have had to transport their animals to safe areas free from ash fall or have had to sell their cattle up to 70 per cent less than their normal commercial value, generating a negative impact on household economies,” the Ecuadorian Red Cross report reads. “In other cases, their animals died, which led to a serious impact on their economic stability. In these cases, affected households had to resort to bank loans that they continue to be unable to repay.”

But it’s not the lava or even the ash that worry those who live near glacier-clad Cotopaxi, The Atlantic reported, it’s the lahar—a superheated deadly slurry of mud, water, volcanic rock, ice, and other debris.

Cotopaxi poses dramatically different hazards to nearby populations, according to Mothes. When combined with hot ash and flowing rock, an eruption of a glaciated volcano can create a lahars, which are known to travel downhill at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour (120 miles per hour). Ecuadorian government has installed eruption warning systems to alert communities in lahar zones. The moment monitors detect seismic activity consistent with an eruption, automated sirens rouse communities downslope.

Ecuador is the only country with glaciers straddling the equator. Though Ecuador is seldom thought of as a glacier country, so prominently do glaciers figure in the nation’s landscape they even appear on its national flag.

Bolívar Cáceres is the head of Ecuador’s glaciers program within the country’s National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. “The Secretary of Risk of Ecuador has worked extensively on the matter, I believe we would be prepared,” he told GlacierHub on Ecuador’s readiness for an eruption. “The latent threat of Cotopaxi is there, waiting for the big event.”

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Photo Friday: Glaciers as Symbols in Ecuador

Ecuador’s Independence Day, or “Día del Primer Grito de Independencia de Quito,” as it is known in Spanish, is celebrated on August 10. Today marks 209 years since the city of Quito declared independence from Spanish colonizers. It was the first Latin American country to declare independence from European rule, and even though short-lived, remains a major milestone in Latin American independence.

In honor of Ecuador’s National Day, we dedicate this week’s Photo Friday to looking at how glaciers have been used as national symbols in Ecuador. From the coat of arms to stamps, Ecuadorians have long recognized how important glaciers are to the country and its people. Glaciers can be found on Antisana, Cayambe, Chimborazo, and Cotopaxi in the Ecuadorian Andes. Ecuador is the only place on Earth where glaciers are found on the Equator. Unfortunately, the glaciers are rapidly receding due to climate change and may disappear completely before the end of the century. For now, they can still be seen residing on some of the tallest volcanoes on Earth and in the country’s national symbols.

 

Ecuador is the only Latin American country with a glacier peak on its coat of arms (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

 

The Ecuadorian Air Forces shield (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

 

The national flag of Ecuador (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

 

An Ecuadorean stamp from 1907 from the series of stamps celebrating the railroad from Quito to Guayaquil (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

 

The issuance of a series of stamps in Ecuador that commemorates glacier research (Source: Correos del Ecuador/Flickr).

 

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The Restlessness of Cotopaxi: A “Benevolent” Eruption

An ash plume rises during the period of restlessness (Source: Talitha Engelen/Flickr).

On August 14, 2015, Ecuador’s glacier-capped Cotopaxi erupted for the first time since the 1940s. A billowing plume of ash rose early in the morning and grew through the day, reaching heights of over three miles. Two small eruptions rained ash on the southern outskirts of Quito, Ecuador’s capital 45 kilometers from the volcano. These dramatic events rattled the country and punctuated a period of seismic and low-level volcanic activity that lasted from April to November 2015.

Recently, scientists at Ecuador’s Instituto Geofísico Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IGEPN) analyzed both the physical properties of the episode and the institutional and community responses of this “dry run,” yielding information that will help Ecuador prepare for future events. Lead author and IGEPN geologist Patricia Mothes told GlacierHub that among the most important lessons learned from the period of restlessness were that “changes can occur very rapidly,” and that certain seismic trends and deformation of the volcanic cone will act as precursors to actual eruption.

The report found that over the seven months of earthquakes, degassing, ground deformation, glacial melting and plumes towering over the landscape, the activity level of the episode actually remained relatively low, at two out of eight on the Volcanic Explosivity Index.

An IGEPN report figure showing the relationship between Cotopaxi and major cities (Source: IGEPN).

Nevertheless, the impacts of the activity were manifold. Heat from the rising magma, in tandem with the layer of dark ash that formed on the glaciers, increased melting and formed new crevasses. People donned masks to avoid breathing in the ash, which damaged crops, sickened livestock, and lowered visibility on the roads for people in transit across the country. Some residents hastily sold their land and livestock or abandoned them entirely. The net effect was to depress the local economy.

With this geophysical unrest came unrest to those living near the volcano. The controversial President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency, and thousands of residents of nearby villages evacuated to safer areas. After weeks to months of displacement in shelters and other towns, some returned to their homes, but recovery was slow and incomplete. In addition to economic harm, the volcanic activity had psychological dimensions. The Atlantic reported that people living in the risk zone experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The most intense threat to Ecuadorians was the potential of lahars, slurries of mud and melted snow and ice that can flow for tens of miles and devastate landscapes. The geologic record shows that in each major eruption, most recently in 1877, Cotopaxi has spawned major lahars on each of its flanks. During the 2015 event, glacial melt formed small lahars that sometimes covered the road to the volcano.

A thermal image from September 3, 2015, looking toward the southeast portion of the cone (Source: IGEPN).

In the event of a more major eruption, glacial outburst floods could occur, according to Mothes. “If impacted by hot pyroclastic flows that would come out of the summit crater and careen down the steep flanks, the glaciers would be greatly eroded, ripped up, and much internal glacier water would likely be released,” she told GlacierHub. During the eruption of 1877, between five and ten meters of ice melted, and giant lahars formed. In the event of an eruption in the future, “the only mitigation scheme is to have people go to higher ground, out of the areas to be potentially affected by lahars,” said Mothes.

Communication surrounding the eruption events at the science-society interface was fraught, according to the IGEPN report. Though the agency released three updates daily, misinformation spread broadly through social media, causing panic. In response, emergency services and the IGEPN formed a “vigía (“look-out” in Spanish) network of observers near the volcano, who disseminated observations of Cotopaxi on local radio stations.

Though the 2015 period of restlessness was traumatic to those that lived through it, the authors note that the landscape and local residents have recovered from Cotopaxi’s eruptions several times throughout history. Reports from as far back as the 16th century indicate that Cotopaxi typically “warms up” slowly before erupting. At present, the IGEPN has over seventy-five scientific instruments on the volcano, continuing monitoring that began in 1986. “At the moment, there is nothing to suspect,” said Mothes.

Cotopaxi on a peaceful day (Source: Gerard Prins/Wikimedia).

The report concluded, “Overall, the volcano’s manifestations served as a warning to everyone to keep attentive of Cotopaxi’s capacity to cause destruction and possible severe ruin.” With a major eruption likely to be forthcoming, the authors called such a warning “benevolent.” Ecuador will continue to await the eventual eruption.

Ecuadorean Eruption Sparks Fears of Glacier Floods

Ash erupted from Ecuador’s glacier-covered Cotopaxi volcano last week after seventy quiet years. The debris shot five kilometres into the air, covering homes, cars, fields and roads as it descended, according to the Independent.

Patricio Ramon, of Ecuador’s Instituto Geofísico, said the eruption was phreatic, meaning that molten rock encountered water, creating a forceful release of steam.

“[I felt] in shock, not knowing what to do when I saw everything was moving. Then a strong smell of sulfur filled the mountain. Tourists were also concerned and wanted to leave as soon as possible,”  resident Franklin Varela told Ciudadana, an Ecuadorean radio station.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest volcano, peaks at 5,897 metres and lies 45 kilometres from the capital, Quito. Its glacier, also named Cotopaxi, is considered to be of significant economic, social and environmental importance, according to reports of the United Nations Environment Programme. Meltwater from the glacier provides Quito with water and hydroelectric power, but in the last 40 years, the ice has thinned by more than 38 percent.  Most of this retreat is attributed to climate change, but eruptions can exacerbate glacial retreat by rapidly melting ice and triggering floods. Researchers from Instituto Geofísico told El Universal they considered Cotopaxi one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its potential for lahars, or mudflows, often triggered by glacial melt. When Cotopaxi erupted in 1877, lahars travelled as far as 100 kilometres from the volcano.  

The most recent ash eruptions led to the evacuation of hundreds of residents and livestock from El Pedregal, a community close to the volcano, reported La Hora. Farmers have expressed concerns that the ash that fell on their livestock feed will harm their animals.

Residents have been warned to avoid inhaling ash. Quito’s Mayor, Mauricio Rodas, told citizens he would hand out masks and told the city to remain calm.

Researchers continue to observe Cotopaxi’s activity as the volcano’s activity increases. On Saturday, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, declared a state of emergency.

The president’s announcement comes the same week as a series of strikes against his government’s labor policies and changes to the constitution that would allow him to run for president at the end of his term. The army and police have been dispatched and civil guarantees are temporarily suspended.

“We declare a state of emergency due to the unusual activity of Mount Cotopaxi,” Correa said. “God willing, everything will go well and the volcano will not erupt.”