Saturday, August 28, 2010

BOILING POINT - Coming January 2011

As Chaitén sleeps...

Two microbiologists monitor the effects of global warming in the shadow of the long-dormant volcano.

A celebrity scientist and his film crew arrive at the caldera to capture Chaitén’s spectacular scenery for a television audience.

And a Nobel Prize-winning scientist sits in his apartment in Paris, monitoring data on fifty-six volcanoes around the world—waiting for the one sign that his diabolical plan is about to be put into motion.

Soon, their destinies will converge. For the Earth has become a pawn in the biggest gamble ever played with humanity’s future...

And Chaitén is about to blow..

"Dionne hits her stride with this heart-thumping, timely thriller, one that rings with surreal authenticity. All of the right elements --- action, suspense, secrets, conspiracies --- meld together, the plot built skillfully, like a master craftsman, one layer at a time. Put simply, it's a non-stop delight of a read." -- New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What it's like to visit an active volcano

When I look at the pictures and video from my research trip to Chaitén Volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile, I remember the reality as being so much more. Seeing the volcano's steam vents, hearing the mountain crackle and rumble, watching the plume build into gigantic cumulonimbus-like clouds while standing in a valley that was devastated by a pyroclastic flow was an incredible experience.

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 as far east 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 covered 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, 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 this excerpt from 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. 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. In consequence, SERNAGEOMIN suggests maintaining Volcanic Red Alert.
Given the seriousness of the threat, it's no wonder Chaitén town remains empty. And yet despite the danger, approximately 50 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. Several stores supply residents' needs, stocked with goods brought in by ferry.

Last April, my son and I stayed 4 days in Chaitén. Our 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 unlike most of the town's residents, 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 woodstove 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 side trips to Santa Bárbara beach, Pumalin Park, 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, and 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. 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 the weather would improve, we headed out nonetheless. This is a view of the northern end of the Carretera Austral, the main north-south road in this part of Chile.

The road north of Chaitén is closed 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:

Understand that the mountain in the background in this zoomed-in photo - an estimated 900 feet high - is completely new. Before the eruption one year ago, this mountain didn't exist. Additionally, this area of new rock and steam vents is just a small part of the west side of the lava dome - the entire caldera is nearly two 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 initial blast of debris and hot gasses and have never recovered. Ferns and mosses are beginning to reclaim the area, but aside from these, 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 streambed afforded an unobstructed view.

The bridge railing on the side facing the volcano is twisted and bent, while the other side is undamaged - a vivid reminder of the tremendous 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 walked past 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 of responsibility 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 of the sign we were on.

Nicholas said that this valley was once narrow. The trees on both sides 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 Nicholas (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 featuring Chaitén Volcano was valid enough reason to come.

People ask if I was afraid. I can honestly say that I was not. While I knew another pyroclastic flow was a very real possibility due to the instability of the lava dome, I figured the odds of such an event occurring while I happened to be there were relatively small.

Instead, I felt nothing but awe. There's a sense of enormity in the presence of an active volcano, a keen awareness of forces unimaginable that's difficult to convey. To be in an area of both destruction and creation and observe firsthand the forces that shaped much of our earth engenders a feeling approaching reverence. I understand now why the ancients worshiped volcanoes.

We stayed in the vicinity 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.

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 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 as mementos.

It's hard to imagine any research trip I might take in the future that could possibly top visiting an active volcano - unless perhaps I decide to write a thriller about a lunar landing gone wrong!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chaiten, Chile April 23, 2009

A short video compilation showing the extent of the destruction caused by the lahar that came through the town one year ago at the time of the initial Chaiten Volcano eruption.

The background noise which gets a little loud at times depending on which way the camera was pointed is the wind - it was a windy, rainy fall day, and we were not using professional-quality equipment.

And while it's difficult to see in the clip, the last image of the sign on the blue building reads, "I [heart] Chaiten."

Chaiten Volcano Video

Long version (9 1/2 minutes)

Short Version (2 1/2 minutes)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New NASA photo of Chaiten Volcano

This is a wonderful new image of the ongoing eruption of Chaitén volcano from the NASA Earth Observatory website. This natural color image was captured by the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) aboard the NASA/USGS Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite on 27 September 2009. Be sure to click on this link to the NASA photo to enlarge it, and then click on the photo a second time once it's loaded into your browser. The detail and resolution are amazing - much more impressive than what I can show you here.

According to Dr. Ralph Harrington, of The Volcanism Blog, "The image shows the caldera, which is now almost entirely filled by the constantly-growing lava dome. The area of active growth can be seen in the west (towards the left of the image); this area is steaming vigorously, and the very steep slopes of the dome complex can clearly be seen, particularly towards the south. These steep slopes are unstable, producing constant rockfalls. A large-scale collapse here would send debris flows down the valley of the Chaitén river towards the town of Chaitén, 10 km south of the volcano."

I can still hardly believe I was there!

Monday, July 13, 2009

FREEZING POINT to be published in the Czech Republic and Germany!

I'm very pleased to announce that both Czech and German rights to FREEZING POINT have been sold. My German publisher is Droemer Knaur, the largest publisher of thrillers in that country. The German edition of FREEZING POINT will be paperback, and the Czech will be hardcover. It's very exciting to think that my novel will be published in languages I don't even read! And yes, in case you're wondering, when FREEZING POINT publishes in those respective countries, my publishers will send me a copy. Fun!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Photo Album

For those who want to see it all . . . .

Chile 2009

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Chaiten - One Year Later

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the eruption of Chaiten Volcano. I can't begin to tell you what that initial eruption was like, but after speaking extensively with my guide, Nicolas La Penna, who was there when the volcano came to life for what many believe is the first time in 8,000 years, and through him as interpreter with several others, I have a small idea.

What I can speak to, having just returned from four days in Chaiten, is the physical condition of the town itself. Officially, Chaiten remains evacuated and is without basic city services such as electricity and running water. Chaiten Volcano is still active, its status "Red Alert," another pyroclastic flow or lahar a very real possibility. Chaiten is a town at risk, and understandably, the government can't assume that risk by endorsing the town's habitation.

And so one year after the eruption, houses that were undamaged remain empty, neighborhoods hit hardest by the lahar still suffocate under several feet of mud and ash. Ruined buildings - houses, churches, schools - tilt at impossible angles. Great swaths of land where homes and buildings were swept out to sea are gray and barren. Horses - left behind when their owners relocated - wander the streets nibbling the grassy medians. The optimistic signs residents posted on their homes and buildings proclaiming "Chaiten will never die" are tattered and faded.

Yet despite the obvious danger and the lack of creature comforts, as many as 50 or 60 of Chaiten's residents have opted to stay. They generate their own electricity, get water from clean streams, buy gasoline to run the generators from towns 100 miles away. Several stores are open, stocked with goods brought in by ferry - staples and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as "luxury items": potato chips, candy and wine. Prices are reasonable, often less than for similar goods in other towns nearby, which tells a lot about the stores' owners. These people are as tough as their forefathers who settled this remote area of Northern Patagonia, and their roots go deep. Each has their reasons for remaining.

"Every house has a story," Nicolas told me more than once as we explored the near-empty town - stories these photographs of Chaiten's residents' own words help to tell.

"Welcome to 'Ground Zero.' Zero electricity, zero water, zero help from the government."

"We want the river defense, not castles in the sand."

"The government has forgotten us."

"We want to return to Chaiten."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I'm currently in Santiago - it's our last night in Chile. We've had a MARVELOUS time. Words really can't describe, though after I get home, I'm going to try. For now, here are a few pictures:

Arriving in Chaiten.

This is what happens when your home lies in the path of a lahar. Very sad, indeed. Keep in mind that this is one year after the volcano erupted, and still the town is in a shambles, physically speaking. I'll write much more on this later.

Life finds a way

Pumalin Park, South Entrance, Northern Patagonia, Chile. We watched a small plane land on this grassy meadow/airstrip - it was the man responsible for the park's creation, Doug Tompkins.

The picture above shows the road north of Chaiten. This is the main north-south highway in Chile. Obviously, it's more developed in other places, but this is Northern Patagonia, and for now, the road is unpaved. This section of road is closed. We walked two miles in, and took this photo - my first look at the volcano:

And yes, those are steam vents. The mountain in the distance is the western side of Chaiten's caldera - all new - none of it existed before the volcano's eruption one year ago May 2. This area took the full brunt of the pyroclastic flow. We walked a quarter mile up this riverbed, and took this photo from roughly one mile away:

Our guide, Nicolas, says he thinks the tower on the right is new - it looks like a massive, square watchtower that's been upthrust from the earth.

While we were in the vicinity of the volcano, we heard occasional rumblings and popping sounds - distant explosions - and twice, the plume above the volcano turned a light orangey-red - Nicolas says that's an indication of pyroclastic activity in the crater.

All in all, it was an absolutely amazing experience. I know my son and I should have been scared to be so close to an active volcano, but we weren't frightened in the least - it was too awe-inspiring!

That's it for now, but if you enjoyed these photos, stay tuned - there's lots more to come!

Friday, April 17, 2009

“Make it real.”

That’s what thriller author David Morrell once advised me about writing novels. At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. After all, a novel is by definition fiction, a carefully contrived blend of plot, setting, and characters. How can it be real?

But after thinking about it, I realized what David was telling me was that for a reader to be able to suspend belief and get swept up in the story enough to care about the outcome, the story has to feel real.

This is always a risk for a novelist who uses an actual setting. All well and good if the reader has never been to the location where a novel is set, but what if it’s a place they know well? I’m currently reading a mystery that takes place in northern Michigan, where I lived for 30 years. As I’m reading, I keep getting pulled out of the story, involuntarily weighing the details against what I know.

Some authors don’t concern themselves overmuch about reality. I’ve always loved what Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child wrote in their authors’ notes for Reliquary: “It should be noted that in certain important instances the authors have altered, moved, or embellished what exists under Manhattan for purposes of the story.”

I find their hubris incredibly freeing. While I write science thrillers, my novels are not a scientific treatise, they’re fiction; meant not to educate, but to entertain. If the truth works, terrific. If not, like Preston & Child, I’ll twist my science until it does what the story wants.

Setting, however, can be tricky. I've never been to Antarctica, the location of my first novel, and while I read the online journals of people who spent time there, and I know snow and cold, the cold truth is, I made much of it up.

That’s why I’m so excited to be able to travel to the location of my next novel. There's nothing like hands-on research. It elevates an author’s prose, so that the reader absolutely knows the author knows what they're talking about.

Plus, seeing things first-hand, hearing small comments made by the people who live there -- just getting from point A to point B -- will generate so many details and ideas I never could have dreamed up on my own, I know I'll have no problem following David’s advice.

That's all for now -- plane leaves on Monday!!!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Getting There

It's a long ways from Detroit to Chaiten. 5,802 air miles, for starters - 5276 from Detroit to Santiago, then another 526 to Puerto Montt. Approximately 15 hours in the air.

Pre-volcanic eruption, a short flight via air taxi out of Puerto Montt would have had me in Chaiten in half an hour. But air service in and out of Chaiten is no longer an option.

Now, one can reach Chaiten only by ferry, or by bus. I had hoped to take the ferry (because I love boats), but it's coming on to winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and as luck would have it (or not), the ferries stop running the week before I arrive.

So bus it is. 12 hours over dirt roads to Futaleufu, where our guide Nicolas will meet us and drive me and my son the rest of the way to Chaiten (155 kms).

The numbers look daunting. Any way you slice it, it's going to be a long, LONG trip. But just look at the scenery!

(Edited to add: I get to take the ferry after all! Hooray for Nicolas, who helped me pull this leg of the trip together!)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chaiten Tour Guide!

I'm so excited! I just found a tour guide who will take me and my traveling companion to within 2 km of the lava dome of Chaiten Volcano! Nicolas La Penna, of Chaitur Excursiones, took this recent photo of the volcano, which I found on The Volcanism Blog.

I clicked on the photo credit, found Nicolas's tour company based in Chaiten, and sent him an email. I didn't know if he'd receive it or not, because according to my web research, the town of Chaiten had been evacuated.

Not entirely so, says Nicolas, who answered my email this morning. While the authorities are urging complete evacuation, there is still lodging in and around Chaiten, and four stores remain open. Not only did Nicolas send me the ferry schedule, he offered to meet me at the dock, arrange lodging in town, and drive me to the volcano.

Nicolas writes:

At the moment, I am field guiding a geologist and Botanist who are investigating the start of the regeneration of life in the areas of the blast zone.

It gives one hope to see how nature enacts this rebirth or Renaissance of an area devastated by pyroclastic flows.

What a great resource Nicolas is going to be - I feel so lucky to have found him!  And what a wealth of book material this trip is going to generate. Maybe I'll end up writing TWO novels!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Travel Tips?

I booked my flight!  I'm incredibly excited.  Traveling to the location where my novel will be set for on-site research is something I've hoped to do ever since I started writing.

I'll be leaving for Chile on April 20, and returning ten days later.  I've got my Lonely Planet guidebook, my Latin American Spanish phrasebook, my passport, raincoat, my netbook PC, Blackberry, digital camera, video camera, and mp3 player (I'll be a walking electronics store!) - is there anything I'm forgetting?

If anyone's been to Chile, particularly to Northern Patagonia, or if anyone has visited a volcano and has travel tips, I'd love to hear them!

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