“Chile is considered a net exporter of natural disasters”
This quote is definitely true considering the ash cloud from the recent eruption of the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano in the south of the country has wreaked havoc with flights in Argentina, Uruguay, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and even briefly in South Africa as well as blanketing the tourism hotspot of Bariloche, Argentina in a thick layer of grey ash (not quite as attractive as the snow that draws the tourists to the town at this time of year). Add to that the tsumanis that over the decades have affected countries as far away as Japan when Chile has had a big earthquake and the quote is even more pertinent.
The continuing eruption of Puyehue- Cordon Caulle reminded me of a time in my childhood when I dreamt of being a volcanologist. This may seem like a rather strange career choice for someone in South Africa where the only volcano we have (excluding islands in the Southern Ocean) erupted so violently approximately 2.5 billion years ago that it is now extinct and is actually my favourite national park (The Pilanesberg) and looks nothing like a volcano any more. So perhaps considering my interest in geological activities such as earthquakes and volcanoes it is fate that I have ended up in a country with the second highest number of volcanoes in the world (topped only by Indonesia) and the 5th highest number of active volcanoes (36) globally.
Unfortunately from my perspective, fate was not in my favour on 4 June when Puyehue-Cordon Caulle started erupting. I have said for many many years that I would love to see a volcano erupt, but sadly when this one woke up again after 50 odd years I was 800km to the north, in Santiago. If it had not been for many scheduled english classes and the need to earn money I would have been on the first bus south to witness this exhibition of nature at its best…from a safe distance of course! Many of my Chilean friends decided I was even more insane then they had previously thought to want to go to the exact place from where thousands of people were fleeing!
I have written about volcanoes in previous blogs and so any regular readers will know how I have fallen in love with picture perfect volcanic cones such as Volcan Llaima, Villarica (which I climbed and peered into its smoking crater) and Osorno in the south or Lincancabur in the north! It is hard to explain and probably sounds crazy, but to me, these giant mountains with smoldering cores have an energy unlike any other natural landscape on earth. And when they erupt in as spectacular style as Puyehue did on its first day (with a lightning storm in the clouds generated by the eruption), that energy becomes even more evident.
Apparently on average there is a volcanic eruption in Chile every 3 years, but it seems this average has become even shorter now at about every 16 months (so if I stay around here long enough perhaps fate will be on my side and I will get to see an eruption). In the last few years there have been some huge eruptions in Chile, although thankfully most of the time there is no loss of life, although there is often damage to livelihoods such as farming from the ash or lava flows etc. The exception to this was in 2008 when Volcan Chaitén erupted and took everyone in Chile by surprise. The reason for this was that in fact there was alot of debate before that as to whether or not Chaitén was an active volcano since the evidence showed that the last eruption was 9500 years ago. Turns out the few scientists who said yes it was active were right when it started erupting in 2008 and carried on intermittently for 2 years. It covered the town of Chaitén (10km from the volcano) in so much ash that the town was destroyed and a new town has since been built further away.
Then there is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile, Volcan Llaima which I saw in the Conguillio National Park in December last year. The largest of its most recent eruptions happened on New Years Day 2008. The lava flows from this eruption are still very evident in the landscape with large tongues of black rocks snaking down through the forests. After this eruption there were another 2 smaller eruptions in the same year and then a further eruption in 2009. All of these are considered relatively mild eruptions compared to Chaitén or the recent Puyehue. But what is interesting for me is that according to local residents in Curacautin, the town closest to Llaima, there have been some small tremors recently and they reckon the volcano is waking up again. I will definitely have to keep a watch on this…maybe my dream will come true sooner rather than later!!!