Residents of several towns and villages in the Ecuadorian Andes are currently on tenterhooks as towering plumes of smoke and ash bellow from the crater of Tungurahua. The volcano is 5,000-meterss-high (16,400-foot), and has been active since 1999, following eight decades of dormancy.
The volcano’s last major eruption occurred in 2006, when the nearby villages of Chilibu, Choglontuz, and Palitagua were wiped out as lava, gas, and ash were spewed some 8 kilometers (5 miles) into the air. At present, government authorities have not advised local residents to evacuate their homes, as the extent of the current eruption has not yet reached a level deemed threatening to their survival.
This is despite reports of smoke and ash clouds reaching heights of up to 7 kilometers (4.35 miles), and the generation of pyroclastic flows. These are made of a mixture of magma, ash, hot lava blocks and gas, and typically move at very high speeds down volcanic slopes.
Since the turn of the Millennium, a new lava dome has been building up within Tungurahua’s crater, formed by the ejection of viscous magma through the volcanic vent. These are not normally pressurized enough to create violent eruptions, although they can generate pyroclastic flows if too much magma accumulates.
For this reason, locals are not overly worried about the latest dramatic developments, although officials are prepared to act swiftly should the situation escalate. According to some news outlets, a layer of volcanic ash has already settled upon vast swathes of nearby farmland, posing a potential threat to the local economy by disrupting cattle and corn farming.
Pedro Espín, a volcanologist from the Tungurahua Volcano Observatory, says he expects this activity to continue without escalating into a major eruption. However, he warns that there is a small chance of a new injection of magma, which could generate significant pyroclastic flows and threaten the existence of some nearby villages such as Pillate and Chontapamba.