A month after it erupted, the Puyehue-Cordón-Caulle volcano in Southern Chile continues to affect neighbouring Argentina and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere.
Buenos Aires airports were closed due to volcanic ash for the second time last weekend, disrupting travel in and out of the capital. Nearer the volcano, Bariloche airport, the main hub in Patagonia, is due to reopen on Friday 8th July after being shut for more than three weeks.
After the initial eruption, on 4th June, columns of smoke spewed up 12km from the pit of the volcano, forming a large and dense ash cloud. Pushed by strong winds, this ash cloud has spread over Argentine territory and across the Southern Hemisphere, closing airports as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.
Most affected were the Patagonian provinces of Rio Negro, Neuquén and Chubut, which together cover an area the size of Germany and England combined. On 17th June they were declared “disaster zones” and in “economic emergency”.
As of today, all 4,000 evacuees from the 22 surrounding municipalities have been able to return home and most flights have been resumed. But there could be long-term economic and environmental consequences. Experts believe that economic losses in Patagonia could reach $600million and affect millions of people.
The Immediate Aftermath
Most of the damage and disruption is caused by ash. During a volcanic eruption, the spewing ash condenses in a thick cloud from which rains volcanic ash. An average layer of volcanic ash of 2.5 cm in thickness can weigh up to 25 kg/m2 when dry, and can surpass 70 kg/m2 if it gets wet.
Air travel faced severe disruption following the eruption. Ash presents a significant threat to aircrafts because if it enters the engines it could potentially cause them to fail. Under advice from the national meteorological service, airlines have been paralysed for days because the ash cloud was sitting between 6 and 13km from the ground, which is too low for planes to fly underneath.
Airline companies Aerolineas Argentinas and Chile’s LAN lost between $12 and $15millon pesos in the 10 first days following the eruption, according to daily La Nación. More than 400 domestic and international flights were cancelled, affecting an estimated 37,000 passengers.
The president of the Airlines Pilot Association (Asociación de Pilotos de Líneas Aéreas) Jorge Pérez Tamayo, claims Aerolineas Argentina and Austral -who account for 70% of domestic flights and 20% of international flights- were losing around $2 million pesos a day. A partial solution was to open new routes to Rio Grande and Ushuaia—both in Tierra del Fuego Province—or Esquel, and transfer passengers by road.
Bariloche receives 46% of its revenues from tourism, and is now facing 80% reservations cancellations. Roberto Sabato, provincial minister of tourism in Bariloche, told the Argentina Independent that this year’s ski season was already in jeopardy: “usually, the station receives 40,000 tourists, but half are yet to arrive”. He claimed the impact of the volcanic ash had been “very strong”, because aircrafts could not land for more than three weeks. On the whole, estimates of tourism revenue lost reach $300million in Patagonia, according to provincial tourism ministry officials.
In desperation, hotels and restaurants are offering special packages and 30% discounts or more. But the fall in tourist arrivals also means a fall in seasonal jobs, with women being the most affected. Villa Angostura, 87km north of Bariloche, is the most affected city, with an estimated $200million of losses and more than 3,000 jobs at risk. A member of the city’s Crisis Committee, Nestor Payllalef, claimed “a worrying situation with 30% of families affected” after a survey of 1,400 homes.
An environmental disaster
Selim Aleuy, Chubut’s environment and sustainable development ministry managing director, says the true environmental impact of the eruption is yet to be known but laboratories are currently studying the quality of air, water, soil and snow. “For the moment, we know that there is no health risk” he says. The air composition has not been affected, as the size of ash cells is inferior to 10 microns, and water in the affected areas remains drinkable.
In the long term, however, ash could pose a major hazard: ash accumulated in the snow, for example, could enhance the risks of avalanches.
Animals and livestock are also deeply affected by the volcanic ash. Oscar Echeverria, from the Environment Council of Rio Negro (CODEMA), spoke with us about the impact of the volcanic ash, saying it had been “hugely consequential” for fauna. He claims it is “practically impossible” to live where the ash has fallen.
Echeverria underlined the uncertainty of the facts at this time, saying that the nature and magnitude of the effects could still change. The provinces of Chubut and Río Negro have been suffering five years of drought, and the ash has destroyed the little pastureland still available.
The situation is catastrophic for most Patagonian farmers: fields and animals are covered in ash, resulting in the death of 600,000 to one million sheep. Meanwhile, the artificial lake of Alicura, 100km from Bariloche, which has 95% of the country’s trout population, is completely covered in ash, and hitting fisherman incomes hard. The volcanic ash also rose the temperature of the Nilahue River to 45 °C, killing around 4.5 million fish.
In Bariloche, several solidarity days were organised by the community to clean up the roads so that children could get to school and adults to work. On the provincial level, governors and municipality representatives say they are trying their best to reach out and provide assistance to every affected zone.
Federal officials announced they would use the Repro (Programa de Recuperación Productiva) to attenuate negative economic externalities. The Repro is a national subsidy that can cover part of private sector employees’ remuneration to limit the number of lay-offs.
On Monday 4th July, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner met with Rio Negro and Neuquén governors, Miguel Saiz and Jorge Sapag, to discuss relief measures.
Among these, President Fernández announced a doubling of social benefits for children, pregnant women and disabled people, as well as some tax exemptions. She appointed a $7million credit for cleaning the area and rebuilding the Route 23 –wich will create at least 300 jobs in Bariloche. Finally, she said $10million will be distributed to farmers and livestock breeders affected by the ash. These measures will be in place for at least 60 days.
Additional measures are being taken by the provinces themselves, including the decision by Chubut Governor Mario Das Neves – who was controversially not invited to the discussions with the president – to free up $1million from the local lottery. Rio Negro governor, Miguel Saiz, claims the province is in need of at least $16millon over the next three months.
Optimism and uncertainty
In Villa la Angostura, some are wondering if the fallen ash could be used productively. Twelve tons of ash have fallen on the city, and, with a similar composition to sand, it could be used for roads and other construction, generating work in the process. According to the city’s cabinet chief Emilio Alvear, a considerable part of the ash is recyclable.
Tourism workers are regaining some hope as the season’s first snow falls over Bariloche’s Cerro Catedral slopes. On 1st July, 1,200 students arrived to help kickstart the new skiing season. Though there are fewer Brazilian’s than usual, Argentines and Chileans seem to be slowly arriving. Roads and public services are now nearly completely restored, making terrestrial transport easier.
Chilean experts said that in the coming days either lava would flow from the volcano, indicating the eruption was ending, or magma below the surface would cause a new explosion. Most believe the volcano will become less active in the next two weeks, with the plume of smoke now at around a quarter of its maximum height.
Past and Future
Issues debated and studies on volcanoes could enable to better prepare for such disaster and develop sustainable policies. This latest ash crisis has raised interesting points, such as geologist Carlos Beros’ suggestion that volcanic ash should be accepted as necessary for the ecosystem and dealt with as rain is.
The Pueyhue-Cordón-Caulle volcano complex is situated in what is known as ‘The Pacific Ring of Fire’, where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions frequently occur. Chile’s chain of 2,000 volcanoes is the world second largest after Indonesia, with about 60 that have erupted over the past 450 years and 500 that are potentially active.
Although the eruption is frequently referred to as coming from Puyehue volcano, it actually came from the adjacent Cordón Caulle opening—which previously erupted in 1960. Puyehue itself has remained dormant.
A similar crisis occurred in Europe in April last year, when Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted, causing the cancelation of around 100,000 flights, affecting 10 million people and costing around US$1.7billion.