Southern Chile covered in ash after volcano erupts
Southern Chile was covered in a thick layer of gray ash on Friday while keeping a wary eye on the Calbuco volcano after it spectacularly erupted for the first time in half a century.
The volcano, which unexpectedly burst into life with two eruptions Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, forcing 4,500 people to evacuate, caused alarm again early Friday when it emitted a large puff of smoke.
Rodrigo Alvarez, the head of the National Geology and Mines Service, said the volcano was still in “crisis phase,” though initial warnings of a possible third eruption have not materialized so far.
The ash cloud meanwhile continued to drift, disrupting flights across a large swath of South America, including one plane from Sydney to Santiago that was forced to turn back after five hours.
In Buenos Aires, on the other side of the continent, American Airlines, United, Delta and Air France all cancelled flights to and from Europe and the United States.
Chilean authorities have declared a state of emergency, sent in the army and evacuated a 20-kilometer radius around Calbuco, which is located in Los Lagos, a region popular with tourists for its beautiful mountain landscapes dotted with volcanoes and lakes with black-sand beaches.
The first eruption, which lasted about 90 minutes, spewed a giant mushroom cloud of ash into the sky, which turned hues of pink and yellow as the sun set over the area.
Seven hours later, the volcano shot red and orange plumes of lava into the sky, as bluish-white bolts of lightning sliced through the billowing ash cloud.
Until minutes before the first blast, volcano monitoring systems had picked up nothing.
“It was so silent, it didn’t give any warning. The smoke just shot straight up into the sky and formed a giant mushroom. It was really impressive. It was a spectacular landscape,” said local resident Riel Rivera, a 48-year-old pharmacist.
The 2,000-meter (6,500-foot) volcano had last erupted in 1961 and showed light activity in 1972, said the National Geology and Mines Service.
It said the latest eruptions had opened up four new craters, giving Calbuco six in all.
Scores of evacuated residents gathered at the police barricade outside the town of La Ensenada, anxious to check on their homes and feed their pets.
On the other side of the security perimeter, the evacuation area was turned into a scattering of ghost towns blanketed with ash up to one meter (three feet) thick, an AFP photographer said.
In La Ensenada, a town of 1,500 people that was the first to be evacuated, workers used heavy trucks to plow the roads clear as a handful of residents ignored the evacuation order to shovel the ash and debris off their rooftops.
The weight of the ash caused some roofs to collapse.
Authorities said that if the current conditions held, residents would be allowed to return home for a few hours in the afternoon to retrieve some belongings, after fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Ash particles spread over southern Uruguay and a broad belt across central Argentina, though the national weather services said they were at high altitude and did not impair visibility.
President Michelle Bachelet, who flew to the affected area Thursday, warned the situation remained “unpredictable.”
There have been no reports of injuries so far, but officials warned the ash could be harmful for people, animals, crops and infrastructure.
Even boats weren't spared. PHOTO: REUTERS
Authorities handed out protective masks in affected towns in both Chile and Argentina.
Officials have also warned of the risk of flooding from hot lava melting snow and ice high in the mountains.
It is the second eruption in Chile since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava.
Chile has about 90 active volcanoes.
The long, thin country has been hit by a series of natural disasters in recent months, from flooding in its usually arid north, home to the world’s driest desert, to wildfires in its drought-hit southern forests.