Cotopaxi: The Giant Awakens


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There was not a hint greenness until further to the south of Riobamba. The world seemed wrapped in ashes, a state that lasted over a month and a half in some places. In 1742, La Condamine calculated that ash lay four (French) inches above the ground at the hacienda La Ciénega. 135 years later, Luis Sodiro recorded a more recognisable measurement for the 1877 eruption: two centimetres in Machachi and six millimetres in Quito. La Condamine, in his time, described green gases, or red mixed with white and grey, and an explosion accompanied by “immense clouds of flying beetles that blocked out the sky and earth and disappeared before the day fell.” Quiteños immediately know what he is referring to: catzos, which in less catastrophic circumstances can turn fields white in their mating season.

According to Sodiro, hens, cockerels, cats and horses looked visibly confused in the face of the darkness brought on by the explosion of 1877, which made it seem like night during the middle of the day. La Condamine, meanwhile, heard the colossus all the way from Quito. He said that he was informed that its roar was even heard in Guayaquil. Sodiro and Wolf describe “shots from powerful artillery”. And Sodiro, in particular, refers to “the unfortunate matter” of so many people who lost their lives that day, and “so many more who would be subjected to desolation and misery.”

Surges of mud, many times bigger than the riverbeds, overflowed apocalyptically, running in such a way that nothing could “present them with the most minimal resistance.”

Entire houses were swept away, with their inhabitants within. It was reported that a local woman was carried by a lahar landslide: “an Indian continued, during transportation, to grind a stone without interrupting the movement of her occupation, unaware of the navigation in which she had found herself”. Wolf, one of the most renowned geologists of his era in the country, was more specific: 20 leagues (100,000 metres) in three hours. “That is to say,

velocity would be close to 10 metres a second…” For most of us, a different kind calculation might make more sense, and is even more startling: the landslides descended as fast as Usain Bolt can run! It took a little more than half an hour for them to arrive at Latacunga, only a touch longer than an hour to get to Valle de los Chillos, almost three to come to the Baños area, and only 18 hours until they reached the mouth of the Esmeraldas River and Pacific Ocean.

Cotopaxi has been named the tallest active volcano in the world; one of the most active volcanoes in the world; and one of the most beautiful to boot. It towers above others like a perfect cone whose trimmings of snow seem to be painted onto the sky, when we see it from a distance from various points around Quito. Another historical titbit: it was painted magnificently by the well-known North American artist Frederic Church. The dramatic trails of smoke across the canvas reveal that he was also witness to the volcano’s activity. The climber Edward Whymper too, apparently slept at the peak while it huffed and puffed, just days before an eruption.

Cotopaxi: Despierta el Coloso 02

The force of the eruption merits an entire literary movement on its powers. But, as Wolf points out with annoyance in 1877, “shame makes one confess that no Ecuadorian writer has taken up the work of occupying himself in such interesting material… almost all that is known of the modern history of Cotopaxi is due to some foreign travellers who by chance found themselves in the country when the eruptions took place.”

In our lifetime, no one has witnessed the bellowing of the great volcano.

We might even say, if asked, that it was dead. But by 1999, the country was preparing itself to shake up the “disinterested” history to which Wolf referred. In 1983, the Institute of Geophysics was founded by Hugo Yépez and Minard Hall, with the need of “occupying” themselves with the volcanic reality of a country as volcanic as ours at the forefront of their minds. Scientists from all over the world united, including the vital participation of the French IRD. The world started paying attention to volcanos after disasters like Mount Saint Helens in 1980 in the United States, and the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz in neighbouring Colombia in 1985. Here in Ecuador we live among volcanos, our cities are, without doubt, incredibly vulnerable to their outbursts. So it was time to hurry up the efforts to understand how everything churns within.

Cotopaxi is rigged up with technology equipment to monitor its movements: on each and every face of the cone. Everything that happens in its interior is fed to the computers of the Geophysics Institute in real time, and the scientists measure the movements with graphics that explain much more than any human could make sense of. This same monitoring takes place on 17 other Ecuadorian volcanos. Jean Luc Le Pennec, who had worked in Ecuador in the past and now lives here observing the Tungurahua volcano, recalls how he had a “lightbulb moment with each eruptive process.” There was Reventador, Guagua Pichincha, Tungurahua… after a nervous silence lasting decades, suddenly the whole country had become one big laboratory for volcanologists. “To come here was to apply everything that I had read and studied about volcanoes to real life … there are few places in the world so perfect for a scientist,” says a visibly moved le Pennec. And now, with Cotopaxi’s ‘re-awakening’ in the summer of 2015, enthusiasm from the scientific community has intensified. “We are going through a very special time,” he adds.

Throughout her long career as an expert volcanologist, Patricia Mothes had hoped for this moment, probably more than anyone else. She was the pioneer who put together the first set of monitoring equipment to measure volcanic activity in the country, and who saw that her charts were beginning to register movement under the ground. She explains to us, almost ironically, that the awakening of Cotopaxi was, this time, a failed eruption. “Like a miscarriage! The numbers indicated that the energy was increasing rapidly. People were afraid because they could feel that something big was coming, threatening the towns with ash, seeing the crater explosion … but suddenly, that energy escaped and everything went back to normal. We learned a lot, like about Tungurahua, about Guagua Pichincha, but this volcano,” Patricia says mysteriously, “gave out a series of very important signals.”

What was feared then did not happen. What Sodiro and Wolf described of the enormous eruption of 1877 did not happen. The story that Leonardo Wild had so scandalously painted in his alarmist fiction Cotopaxi: Red Alert, in which Quito was consumed by “desolation and misery” due to a monstrous mountain, did not materialize. But that doesn’t mean that it might not happen. In reality, it means that surely, some day it will. It means that it is warning us. The power of Cotopaxi is huge. And our population now is not the same as it was when the mudslides claimed trees and hills and the odd horse and a handful of houses. Now we must remember that it coexists with cities, and millions of souls.

“Much of our efforts have been focused on understanding the movements of the landslides,” says Patricia. These reveal the places where the danger posed by the volcano is most imminent. Through them, we can create a real risk management plan. As Patricia says, “the information is here … we are here, every day, learning more about our marvellous Andes and the dangers that they can provoke. But politicians come and go, ‘communicators’ come and go, governments come and go, and they’re only interested when they see smoke, when they feel a tremor, when houses collapse… It’s only then that they want us to be ‘informing them’. Policy makers, public policy and the greater public should all be on the same page.”

The work of monitoring a volcano is an exercise that spans a lifetime. It is a unique commitment that we cannot measure in human time frames.

The few years during which we have begun to use equipment to capture volcanic activity represents less than a thousandth of a second in the life of these terrestrial giants, and each time that something happens in the core of the mountains, our volcanologists learn just a little more. We are tiny before them, before their age, before their magnificence, and only united will we be able to look them in the eye and say, we are here too. We will treat you well and you will tell us where you will go…

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