Ecuador Volcano Awakening from 75-Year Sleep

Suramérica, Ecuador, Sierra, Cotopaxi,

Known as the world’s largest active volcano, Cotopaxi has been silent for almost 75 years. However, the volcano — located only 28 miles southeast of the Ecuadorian capital of Quito — is now starting to show indications of restlessness.

Signs of life

Since mid-April of this year, particularly in May, Ecuador’s volcano monitoring agency (IG-EPN) has noted that the volcano produced more than 100 small localized earthquakes daily, in addition to signature tremors associated with fluid movement within a volcano. Similarly, sulfur dioxide emissions are five times higher than the normal level of 500 tons a day, and the mountain’s steam-and-gas plume has become more prominent, reaching a half mile high in recent days — causing some degree of alarm.

Add all this up and you have a volcano that is clearly heating up.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a volcano’s unrest usually does not lead to a new eruption, and for now the signs of volcanic unrest are small.

Still, while there is no indication that a new eruption is imminent, the current unrest could be a mediumm to long term precursor to a possible new eruption, which would be the first since 1942.

Ecuador Springs into Action

In any case, Ecuador isn’t taking any chances, as the authorities are actively preparing for the eventual awakening of Cotopaxi.  Though the park currently remains open (despite rumors to the contrary), tourists are being provided with emergency supplies, evacuations vehicles and routes are in a state of readiness, as a “white alert” has been declared for the areas surrounding the colossal volcano.

In the meantime, authorities are keeping close tabs on the volcano’s activity, which isbeing monitored by a lahar-detection system, seismographs, GPS, electronic inclinometers, video cameras and satellites to detect hot spots.

As Cotopaxi stands like a sentinel looking over the valley were Quito lies, a major concern for any unlikely eruption relates to the possibility of ash being expelled over the capital city – an event experienced by Quito as recently as 1999, when the nearby Pichincha erupted and covered the city in several inches of volcanic ash.

For Now, A Waiting Game

Rising to an altitude well over 3 ½ miles above sea level, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times since 1738. The most violent historical eruptions of Cotopaxi volcano were in 1744, 1768, 1877, and 1904. Its eruptions often produced pyroclastic flows and destructive mud flows (lahars), some of which travelled more than 50 miles to reach the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Amazon Basin to the east.

For now, though, volcanologists and disaster planners in Ecuador are remaining vigilant while playing a waiting game until the signs of current activity around Cotopaxi become clearer.


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