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!



I love your article and the great pics. I am a rock nut and would love to have some of what you brought back. I look forward to your book. Shari

Karen Dionne

Thanks for your kind words, Shari! I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures and the article. If you email me your address, I'll send you a small piece - from one rock nut to another!


Cool Pictures. What made you pick this spot for your research?

Karen Dionne

Thanks for your interest, Cheryl - that's a great question. When I first got the idea for this novel, I really didn't know anything about volcanoes, or about Chile. But someone had sent me a link to that incredible picture of the initial eruption, and I thought it'd be cool to use that location for my story. I was lucky that my editor liked the idea, too! Going to Chile, and especially interviewing my guide, Nicholas, who was there when the volcano first erupted, was a great way to learn!

Pen N. Hand

Looking forward to seeing the book. The article is fantastic and informative. At one time I taught volcano development and used the one in Mexico which popped up one morning in a corn field, which happened in the 1940s.
Thanks for a great intoduction to your mystery, Boiling Point.
Nash Black (Irene)

Karen Dionne

I'd forgotten about that volcano in Mexico - wow, that must have been something, eh? Thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment!

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