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.

Using Film to Reduce Risk on Volcanoes

For people to cope with environmental hazards, they need to understand threats – a key step that can lead to behavior change. A recent paper by Anna Hicks et al., published in the International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction, describes the importance of communicating glacier hazards and other risks. The authors made videos and then assessed their effectiveness for risk communication in volcanically-active communities. The films were used to communicate findings from the Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA1) project, led by the University of East Anglia in the UK, in order to apply effective volcanic risk assessments.

A view of La Soufrière on St. Vincent (Source: Kevin Gabbert/Creative Commons).

Hicks et al. selected two sites with histories of volcanic activity, Colombia and a Caribbean island, St. Vincent, as case studies for the videos. These sites were attractive for other reasons: St. Vincent has a high use of digital media, and Colombia has large at-risk populations across the entire country. As a result, film could be used to communicate across broad audiences in boith cases.

St. Vincent has one prominent volcano called La Soufrière. La Soufrière comprises about a third of the island’s area. It last erupted in 1979, but the eruption that occurred in 1902 was much more devastating, killing around 1,500 people on the island. Colombia, on the other hand, has 57 volcanoes. Many of them are stratovolcanoes (over 4000 meters), and a large number are glacier-capped. Hicks et al. focused on the glaciated Nevado del Ruiz during the film-making process.

Volcán Galeras in Colombia (Source: Josecamilom/Creative Commons).

Hicks et al. took a co-productive approach and made the intended audience the major focus of the films. The series of videos featured firsthand accounts from witnesses of previous eruptions and secondhand accounts shared by community elders with younger generations. The interviews were intended to create an emotional response from the viewers. The eruptions featured in the films occurred at least a generation ago, allowing Hicks et al. to explore how film can impact social memory. The series included reflections on eruptions that occurred in the past, and how to prepare for possible ones in the future.

By making the videos for St. Vincent, over a year earlier than the series for Colombia, the authors learned the importance of the filming process and the final product in improving people’s knowledge of risks and behavior change. Each film was designed to increase awareness of eruptions, while also maintaining and strengthening social and cultural memory of the events.

The films were screened in each community and then followed by in-person surveys. The films sought to dispel myths about the volcanoes and improve preparedness. The results of the survey indicated improvements in knowledge, as well as success at empowering people to act. For example, one of the participants in St. Vincent noted “the speed at which the flow can get to the Rabacca river and cut us off if we do not adhere to the early evacuation process.” As Hicks et al. describe in the paper, many of the attendees had never actively sought information on eruptions before and engaged for the first time during the film screening and consequent workshops.

A still of Guillermo Tapias, a resident featured in “Nevado Del Ruiz Remembering 1985” (Source: Streva Project).

In the paper, Hicks et al. explain that risk communication “will have more success if it is rooted in the socio-cultural context in which the risk is understood.” Adopting concepts from David Cash, the information should be credible (believable and trusted) and salient (relevant).

The authors chose film specifically because it is an effective way to communicate concepts or risks that are difficult to imagine or understand. Dr. Kerry Milch, a research associate at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, explained to GlacierHub how film could convey these concepts. She described that film can be effective because it makes people react in visceral ways by targeting the emotional part of the brain, which can be very motivating. Milch explained that this needs to be connected to concrete actions to help individuals feel empowered. Hicks et al. also explain how film has the capacity to capture oral histories, which are culturally significant in many communities. Oral histories are often shared intergenerationally and are effective as a method of disaster risk reduction because they come from trusted individuals.

A resident featured in “Living with the volcano – La Soufrière St Vincent” (Source: Streva Project).

Skepticism of scientific projections around eruptions can be problematic. Dr. Erik Klemetti, a geosciences professor at Denison University, explained in an interview to GlacierHub that the 1985 eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz in Colombia caused a lot of mistrust of outside scientists within the community. Geologists monitoring the area struggled to convey the risk of eruption to the local community, and when the eruption led to many deaths, the community grew more mistrusting of scientists. Therefore, for Hicks et al., involving the community in the risk communication was crucial.

They used a co-productive approach in risk communication. The people in St. Vincent and Colombia featured in the videos also helped select the sites used in filming, as well the film’s content. This process gave a voice to the communities. Hicks et al. recommend the co-productive method be integrated into a comprehensive disaster risk reduction plan. While not feasible for every community or climate-related risk, films could be a successful risk communication tools in many other regions.

Roundup: Hazard Films, Water Scarcity, and Peace Building

Roundup: Films, Water and Peace


Films Raise Awareness in Volcanic Regions

From Science Direct: “The medium of film is well established for education and communication about hazardous phenomena as it provides engaging ways to directly view hazards and their impacts… Using volcanic eruptions as a focus, an evidence-based methodology was devised to create, use, and track the outcomes of digital film tools designed to raise hazard and risk awareness, and develop preparedness efforts. Experiences from two contrasting eruptions were documented, with the secondary purpose of fostering social and cultural memories of eruptions, developed in response to demand from at-risk communities during field-based research. The films were created as a partnership with local volcano monitoring scientists and at-risk populations who, consequently, became the leading focus of the films, thus offering a substantial contrast to other types of hazard communication.”

Read more about it here.

A map of St. Vincent showing the main road, water courses and volcanic hazard zones (source: Hicks et al.).


An Overview of Water Issues in Mountain Asia

From Cambridge Core: “Asia, a region grappling with the impacts of climate change, increasing natural disasters, and transboundary water issues, faces major challenges to water security. Water resources there are closely tied to the dramatic Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) mountain range, where over 46,000 glaciers hold some of the largest repositories of fresh water on earth. Often described as the water tower of Asia, the HKH harbors the snow and ice that form the headwaters of the continent’s major rivers. Downstream, this network of river systems sustains more than 1.3 billion people who depend on these freshwater sources for their consumption and agricultural production, and increasingly as a source of hydropower.”

Learn more about the HKH area here.

View from Cholpon-Ata across the lake towards the Tian-Shan Mountains in Asia (source: Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr).


The Pathway of Peaceful Living

From Te Kaharoa: “This paper traces the peacebuilding efforts of Anne Te Maihāora Dodds (Waitaha) in her North Otago community over the last twenty-five years. The purpose of this paper is to record these unique localized efforts, as a historical record of grass-roots initiatives aimed at creating a greater awareness of indigenous and environmental issues… The paper discussed several rituals and pilgrimages. It describes the retracing of ancestral footsteps of Te Heke Ōmaramataka (2012), the peace walk at Maungatī (2012) and the Ocean to Alps Celebration (1990). This paper also discusses the genesis behind cultural events such.”

Explore more about the Maori nation here.

Tasman Glacier at Mount Cook NP, New Zealand (source: Paco/Flickr).


The Messy Encounter of Volcanoes and Glaciers

Lahars, or mudflows from the eruptions of glacier-covered volcanoes, are a threat that the communities of Skagit Valley in northwest Washington live with. These destructive mudflows can be triggered during volcanic eruptions when hot water and debris rush downslope from the volcano and mix with glacial water. A recent study from the Journal of Applied Volcanology by Corwin et al., identifies ways to improve hazard management and community preparedness in Washington’s Skagit Valley, home to Mount Baker, the second most glaciated volcano in the Cascade Range, and Glacier Peak, the second most explosive. The highly populated communities within Skagit Valley remain especially at risk for dangerous mudflows since both Mount Baker and Glacier Peak are considered active lahar hazard zones.

Mount Baker in Washington state (Source: Jerry Meaden/Creative Commons).
Mount Baker in Washington state (Source: Jerry Meaden/Creative Commons).

All five of Washington’s Cascade Range volcanoes are active. These volcanoes are especially dangerous because in addition to flowing molten lava and spewed ash that can destroy everything downhill, volcanoes with snow and ice at their peaks can create additional perils. Heat from the eruption can melt the snow or ice that has accumulated, create mud, and pour down narrow mountain valleys. This mixture of water and rock fragments that flows downslope of a volcano into a river valley has dangerous repercussions for communities like those in the Skagit Valley.

Destruction from a lahar in Washington (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).
Destruction from a lahar in Washington (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).

While lahars can be visually stunning when the volcanic material interacts with glaciers  see the remarkable images in GlacierHub’s recent article on these events in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Far East Russia lahars can cause extensive damage to the built environment as boulders destroy structures and mud buries entire communities. Moving lahars appear as a roiling slurry of wet concrete and can grow in volume as they incorporate everything in their path  rocks, soil, vegetation, and even buildings and bridges.

Mudslide from a lahar 55 miles northeast of Seattle (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).
Mudslide from a lahar 55 miles northeast of Seattle (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).

Corwin et al. determined that a crucial disaster risk management strategy for lahar events is “whole community” training programs, which emphasize household preparedness and help disaster responders better perform their duties. Since lahars can cause widespread damage to the surrounding environment, it is important for community members to understand how to address the hazard before it occurs.

The focus of the research was on the ascription of responsibility on preparedness and the influence of professional participation in hazard management on household preparedness and risk perception. Disaster response professionals know  the best household preparedness measures, yet they sometimes fail to implement these measures in their own households. The study found that this may be a result of professional disaster responders being out in the field during a disaster, instead of in their homes.

Even more surprising, response professionals failed to interpret local volcanic hazard maps more accurately than laypeople. There could be several reasons for this that need to be explored in a subsequent study, but as Kimberley Corwin, a geoscientist and the leading author of the study,  explains, it could be because “people in both groups drew on outside information such as what they remembered or learned about the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.”

When asked by GlacierHub about her familiarity with lahars, Corwin described her closest experience with an active volcano in Chile’s March 2015 Villarrica volcano eruption. Corwin was in Pucón, Chile, for a volcanology course with Boise State University. The group of academics arrived two weeks after the main fire fountain event, which triggered a lahar. There was still active ash venting in the area.

“While we were there, the alert levels in the town were elevated and a 5-kilometer exclusion zone was set up around the vent,” Corwin explained. “It offered a great opportunity to observe the reactions of locals, tourists, and officials.”

Corwin’s further research found that preparedness measures are crucial in areas that are prone to natural disasters, as they can help professional responders and other community members protect themselves and their families.

A video of a 2003 lahar event in East Java, Indonesia, at the  Semeru volcano (Source: adripicou/YouTube).

In the Skagit Valley, nearly all the community members correctly identified that lahars pose a risk to the region. However, when questioned about their confidence level on how to respond to a lahar, the participants demonstrated decreased self-assurance. They answered by saying that they have higher confidence when responding to floods, as these natural events occur more frequently than lahars.

Map showing volcanoes in the Cascade Range (Source: U.S. Geological Survey).
Map showing volcanoes in the Cascade Range (Source: U.S. Geological Survey).

Some recommendations for implementing “whole community” training programs involve increasing community participation in hazard management, identifying where community members can access hazard information, and providing instructions on how to interpret this information. Overall, these recommendations would increase household preparedness and allow professional responders to successfully complete their tasks without worrying about the safety of their families back home. In this way, community members would reclaim responsibility for their personal safety, and professional responders could feel more comfortable responding during a hazardous lahar event.