Tension and fear is high in towns surrounding Chile’s Calbuco volcano, after the sleeping giant awoke this week, sending spectacular plumes of ash into the sky.
This week was the volcano’s first eruption in 42 years. The blasts that began Wednesday, creating a remarkable scene of smoke plumes and ash shooting more than 6 miles into the sky. Calbuco had another spectacular outburst early Thursday with lightning crackling through a dark sky turned reddish orange by the explosion. More smoke was seen coming from the volcano Friday, and experts warn it could erupt again.
NASA’s Earth Observatory satellites captured images of the smoking volcano from space Friday.
About 1,500 people in Ensenada, in the foothills of the volcano, were told to evacuate earlier this week, essentially turning it into a ghost town, The Associated Press reported. A new round of evacuations came Friday as ash and mud were detected in a nearby river.
Authorities said the evacuees from the towns of Chamiza, Lago Chapo and Correntoso would stay at shelters in the nearby city of Puerto Montt.
The height of the volcanic ash emitted triggered concerns that the dust could contaminate water, trigger respiratory illnesses and halt more flights. No injuries have been reported.
The first blast surprised Chilean emergency officials, who were left with only minutes to issue an alert.
“People went into a state of panic,” said Miguel Silva Diaz, an engineer who lives in Puerto Montt, a city about 14 miles from the volcano. “Then, at around 1 a.m., I heard a loud noise, as if somebody had detonated an atomic bomb.”
Parts of Argentina reported heavy ash falling after the eruption. According to analysis by Argentina’s meteorological service, the ash cloud was shot as high as 40,000 feet.
Meteorologist Chris Dolce of The Weather Channel pointed out that you could see the first eruption via infrared satellite. The second eruption was also visible on satellite even as the ash plume from the first eruption drifted north.
Authorities evacuated 4,000 people as gas and ash continued to spew, and they closed access to the area around the volcano, which lies near the cities of Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, some 620 miles south of Santiago.
“I was shocked. I had just arrived home when I looked through the window and saw the column of smoke rising up. We called our families, posted photos,” said Daniel Palma, a psychologist who lives in Puerto Varas.
“We woke up today with a blanket of fog and it hasn’t cleared. We have a layer of smoke above us,” Palma said, adding that many were concerned about the possible effects of the ash on their health.
President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency, saying the eruption of Calbuco was “more serious and unpredictable” than the one last month at the Villarica volcano, which also forced the evacuation of thousands.
“We don’t have any problems with supplies, water or sewage up to now. That’s not the problem,” said Bachelet, who visited the area Thursday. “Our problem is a respiratory one, from inhaling all of this ash, and the fact that this ash could generate some sort of environmental contamination.”
The short-term dangers related to the ash also include eye and skin infections as well as water contamination, said Bernardo Martorell, a physician and the head of the sanitary planning division at Chile’s health ministry.
“That’s why the people in the area need to evacuate,” Martorell said.
Meanwhile, the Chilean national geology and mining service has warned that people should prepare for an “even more aggressive eruption.”
Ash continued to fall Thursday in Puerto Montt and other nearby cities, said Patricio Vera, director of a local radio station. Vera said that after the initial eruption, hundreds of people rushed to buy gasoline, forcing stations to ration sales, while supermarkets closed early to avoid the risk of looting.
The 6,500 foot Calbuco last erupted in 1972 and is considered one of the top three most potentially dangerous among Chile’s 90 active volcanos.
LATAM and other airline companies cancelled flights to and from Puerto Montt because airborne ash can severely damage jet engines.
In 2011, a volcano in the Caulle Cordon of southern Chile erupted violently, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights and the evacuation of more than 3,500 people. Thick, abrasive soot coated slopes in the ski resort city of San Carlos de Bariloche, over the border in Argentina.
By Thursday afternoon, much ash had made its way to Villa La Angostura, Argentina, a small town about 56 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Calbuco. Cars and streets were coated with a thin layer of ash, but people were otherwise going about their business.
“We are praying that the volcanic activity will be as short as possible,” said mayor Roberto Cacaults.