In May 2008, a dormant volcano in Chile awoke from its 9,000 year sleep. The Chaitén volcano blasted smoke and ash high into the atmosphere, causing the local population to flee from the nearby town, under the ominous clouds of lightning-inducing hot ash and steam. Eight months after the eruption shook the region, the small town in the southwest remains deserted and polluted.
Using the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite, a new view above the volcano have become available, showing the destruction in the wake of this regional natural disaster…
In the days preceding the Chaitén eruption, increased seismic activity shook the area. Then on May 2nd, the stirring volcano erupted violently, ejecting a white-grey plume of ash 21 km aloft. The Chilean government issued a state of emergency, evacuating the town 10km south of the volcano. According to local media 4,000-5,000 people were evacuated from the town of Chaitén and surrounding areas over the following days. A thick layer of ash continued to rain down on surrounding areas, forcing the evacuation of another town, Futaleufú, 65 km away. In the few days after the Chaitén eruption, one elderly person died during the evacuation process.
On May 6th, the volcano grew more powerful, blasting smoke and ash 30 km into the atmosphere, forcing an evacuation of everyone within a 50 km radius of the 3 km-wide Chaitén caldera. Some incredible images of the region flooded the mainstream media, huge plumes of hot ash driving an exchange of charge, making the air erupt in a huge lightning storm.
Lightning can happen as a result of a volcanic eruption. As the hot ash rises through the cooler atmosphere, transfer of charge occurs. This excess of electrons within the cloud makes it act like a capacitor, and should the conditions be correct, huge electrical discharges may be observed as bolts of lightning during volcanic eruptions. It seems that the Chaiten volcano’s recent activity has created the perfect conditions for such a show, allowing photographers in the region to capture some stunning images. — Universe Today (May 7th, 2008)
Far from the eruption being over, new NASA images have shown the devastation to the region. Earlier this month, the ASTER instrument on board NASA’s Terra satellite looked down on the volcano. The ASTER instrument generates data for the two false-colour images in this post (pictured top and left). The images are composed of visible and infrared light. The red areas are vegetation cover, open (ash-covered) ground is brown and water is deep blue. As can be seen the Chaitén Volcano plume is thick, obscuring the ground beneath.
Focusing on the once busy capital of the Palena Province in Los Lagos Region in central Chile reveals that as the volcano continues to erupt, the town remains empty to this day, possibly permanently. During May 2008, a lahar (a mudflow or landslide composed of pyroclastic material and water) blocked the course of the Blanco River running through the town, causing it to change course. In the weeks following the eruption, the river has ripped though a large part of the town causing a huge amount of damage.
Some defensive work has been undertaken by the government, but it is currently unclear whether the town can be re-inhabited. The future of the town has become a matter of political controversy in Chile. — Wikipedia
Although I am in awe of the striking images published by the international press in May of the lightning shows that dominated the landscape surrounding the caldera, there is a sadness that thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in central Chile, possibly never to return. The awesome power of the Chaitén Volcano will shape the region for generations to come…