What it's like to visit an active volcano
Contributor
Written by
Karen Dionne
September 2009
Contributor
Written by
Karen Dionne
September 2009
There's a feeling of enormity when in the presence of an active volcano, an awareness of forces unimaginable, that's difficult to convey. Everything about the experience feels powerful. When I look at the pictures and video my son and I shot when we visited Chaitén Volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile last spring while doing research for my next novel, I remember the experience as being so much more. But perhaps a combination of pictures and words will give blog readers a small sense of what the volcano was actually like. First, some background: Chaitén Volcano came to life for what many believe is the first time in 9,000 years on May 2, 2008 with what scientists consider a major eruption. The plume ascended 19 miles into the stratosphere, covering much of Patagonia with volcanic ash, and drifting east as far as the Atlantic. The town of Chaitén lies six miles from the volcano at the mouth of the Rio Blanco. Chaitén was evacuated at the start of the eruption, with no loss of life. Heavy winter rains ten days later washed the ash that blanketed the denuded mountains into the river, creating a lahar that caused the banks of the Rio Blanco to overflow. 90% of the town was flooded. Over subsequent weeks, the river excavated a new course through Chaitén, completely destroying a significant part of the town, as this aerial shot shows.
Photo by Jorge Morales Flores
One year later, the volcano continues to erupt. According to the most recent bulletin from Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (SERNAGEOMIN), the Chilean government agency charged with monitoring volcanic activity in that country:
The eruptive activity continues with the growth of the dome complex, observable only on some occasions because of the winter weather. Consequently the latent danger of collapse because of the growth of the domes continues, with possible explosions and generation of block-and-ash flows, which may affect the valleys adjacent to the volcano. Moreover, the quantity of pyroclastic material from fallen volcanic rock originating from both block-and-ash flows and lateral explosions has formed important accumulations in the adjacent valleys and especially towards the valley of the Chaitén river, from which the fresh occurrence of lahars towards Chaitén during torrential rains cannot be ruled out. In consequence, given that the seismic activity remains elevated – a result of the growth of the dome complex – and the eruptive activity continues with the possibility of the generation of block-and-ash flows in random directions which may affect the surrounding valleys including the generation of new lahars, SERNAGEOMIN suggests maintaining Volcanic Red Alert.
Given the seriousness of the conditions, it's no wonder Chaitén town remains empty. As long as Chaitén Volcano continues to erupt, the town is in danger, and understandably, the Chilean government can't endorse its habitation. 50 or 60 of the original 4,500 residents still live in the town, though Chaitén is without electricity and running water. Residents get their water from clean streams, purchase gasoline for their vehicles and generators from towns 100 miles away. Despite the hardships, several stores are open, stocked with goods brought in by ferry. My guide, Nicholas La Penna, has been conducting tours for visitors to the area for a dozen years, and was helpful beyond measure. The rooms and meals he arranged for us with a friend who rents cabins were far more comfortable than I'd anticipated. Cabanas Pudu has its own well, so we had the luxury of cold running water and indoor toilets. Electricity was generated between 7 - 10 every evening, which meant I didn't need the extra batteries I'd brought for my electronics. After a day trekking about in the cold and rain, our two-bedroom cabin was cozy and warm thanks to a fire Juan made for us in a small wood stove each evening. And Anita's meals were fabulous - salmon, chicken, beef, potatoes, rice, fresh bread, and salad. Just look at this breakfast! During our first three days in Chaitén, we toured the town and took a side trip to Pumalin Park and Lago Yelcho and the Amarillo hot springs. But as beautiful as the area was (and it really was stupendous - we're talking black volcanic sand beaches, cavorting dolphins and sea lions, snow-capped mountains too numerous to name, green mountain meadows, rivers with salmon the size of three-year-olds - Northern Patagonia and the Andes!), the reason we'd traveled 13 hours by air and another 13 by ferry was to see the volcano. Which we very nearly didn't. Normally, the volcanic plume is visible from Chaitén. This is the sort of vista I expected to see:
View of the column of gas and ash from Chaitén. photo by SERNAGEOMIN
But late April is early winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and the weather was persistently rainy and overcast. When the last day dawned more of the same, I had to reconcile myself to the idea that while I was now just 6 miles from Chaitén Volcano (after traveling 7,000!), I might not get to see it. Hoping that the weather would improve, we headed out. This is a view of the northern end of the Carretera Austral, the main north-south road in this part of Chile. The road is closed north of Chaitén because of damage caused by the eruption, so we drove as close to the volcano as possible, then parked and walked.
After two miles, we came to an open area of stark dead trees that reminded me of the swamps in Northern Michigan. Nicholas stopped. Smiled and pointed. "There's the volcano." And indeed, there it was - a "pinch me" moment if ever there was one.
Understand that the entire mountain in the background in this zoomed-in photo - an estimated 900 feet high - is entirely new. Before the eruption one year ago, this mountain didn't exist. Additionally, this area of rock and steam vents is just a small part of the west side of the lava dome - the entire caldera is three miles across. As you can see in this photo, the trees nearest to the volcano are simply gone - incinerated during the initial eruption. Farther away, the trees have been knocked down. Where we're standing less than a mile from the lava dome, the trees were stripped of their leaves and secondary vegetation by the blast of debris and hot gasses and have never recovered. Here and there ferns and mosses are beginning to reclaim the area, but aside from them, I could have been shooting my pictures in black and white. So how does one pose in front of an active volcano? Serious, or smiling? I tried both. Having seen the volcano at last, I was ready to die a happy woman (in a manner of speaking). But Nicholas took us farther up the road to a bridge over a river, where a wide stream bed afforded an unobstructed view. The iron bridge railing on the side of the road facing the volcano is twisted and bent, while the other side of the bridge is undamaged - a vivid reminder of the forces that swept through this valley. Because Chaitén Volcano lies within the boundaries of Pumalin Park, next to the bridge is a sign warning visitors the park is closed. We passed the sign and hiked a quarter mile up the river into the park. We understood the sign is necessary to absolve the park's management if someone were to get hurt, but realistically, if a lahar or a pyroclastic flow swept through the valley, it would hardly matter which side we were on. Nicholas said that this valley was once narrow. The trees met overhead, and you couldn't see the river. Just look at it now: The scale is enormous - much larger than my pictures are able to convey. You can get a sense of what it was like if you click on the picture below to enlarge it. Look closely, and you'll see my son standing just left of center and Nicolas (wearing a white baseball cap) crouched in the middle taking a picture. Nicholas had warned from the outset that we wouldn't stay long near the volcano - it's just too dangerous. He also said he won't bring casual sightseers here. I'm grateful he felt my writing a novel set in the area was a valid enough reason to come. People ask if I was afraid. I can honestly say I was not. While I knew the instability of the lava dome made a pyroclastic flow a very real possibility, I figured the odds of such an event occurring while I happened to be there were relatively small. Instead, I felt nothing but awe. Seeing the steam vents, watching the volcanic plume swell and form, building into giant cumulo-nimbus-like clouds while standing in a valley that had been devastated by a pyroclastic flow was an incredible experience. To be in an area of both destruction and creation, seeing firsthand the forces that shaped much of our earth, was beyond compare. My son and I both agree we would have gladly gone closer. We stayed in the vicinity of the volcano for 4 hours. At one point, the preventive clouds cleared, and another portion of the lava dome became visible - a massive upthrust of rock that looked like the Empire State Building. Nicholas told us this was the first time he had seen this tower. I believe it is the central pinnacle described in the caption in this aerial shot below:

Figure 3

Aerial view of the dome complex, the volume and extent of which have grown significantly, and of the very fractured central pinnacle (courtesy Mr Javier Romero, Vialidad MOP, Puerto Montt).

Near the end of our stay, we saw colors in the clouds - orange and brown - evidence of pyroclastic activity within the caldera. Back on the road, we heard explosions that sounded like distant gunfire - pop pop pop - pop POP pop - accompanied by a low rumbling, and felt a small earthquake. SERNAGEOMIN currently reports an average of 25 earthquakes a day in the volcano's vicinity (up from 18 per day when I visited in May), though most are too small to be felt. All in all, the trip to Chaitén Volcano was BEYOND amazing - an absolutely unique experience for which I'll always be grateful. I brought back tons of book material (figuratively speaking) and ten pounds of Chaitén obsidian (literally) - some of which I had made into jewelry. It's hard to imagine any research trip I might take that could possibly top visiting an active volcano - unless perhaps I decide to write a thriller about a lunar landing gone wrong!

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