El Reventador Volcano, Which Closed Quito, Deserves More Study, UB Scientist Says

Like Mt. Vesuvius, El Reventador erupted without warning

Release Date: November 8, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ecuador's El Reventador volcano awoke from a 35-year slumber last Sunday with an eruption that makes other volcano eruptions of recent years look "pale" in comparison, according to a University at Buffalo geologist.

El Reventador, known locally as "the exploding one" and "the destroyer" is located in a remote section of the Amazon rainforest, but the power of its explosion Sunday sent tons of ash as far as Ecuador's capital, Quito, about 60 miles away, causing the city and its airport to close down and causing the evacuation of about 1,500 villagers who live close to the volcano.

Michael F. Sheridan, Ph.D., University at Buffalo professor of geology, noted that "while typical ash flows from volcanoes will travel just a few miles at most, this one traveled more than six miles."

Sheridan, who last month flew over Ecuador's erupting Tungurahua volcano as part of a research project, planned to conduct fieldwork at El Reventador this coming week, but canceled his plans based on a government ban on travel to the volcano. He said scientists in Ecuador estimate there is a 50 percent chance the volcano will have another major eruption in the next few months.

Sheridan said that not much has been published on El Reventador, which has been silent for more than 20 years.

He added that the initial eruption on Nov. 3 and subsequent eruptions have resulted in the evacuation of 1,500 villagers.

One of the most interesting aspects of this eruption, Sheridan noted, is the fact that there were essentially no precursors.

"This was a pretty fast trigger," he said. "Generally before an eruption, there are months or at least days of earthquakes that signal an eruption is imminent.

"In this case, there were only 6 hours of earthquakes, so it's pretty similar to Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 that destroyed Pompei, where there was an earthquake in the morning and by the afternoon everyone in the vicinity was dead."

Sheridan noted if the villages had been located closer to El Reventador's crater, Sunday's eruption would certainly have been lethal.

Sheridan has spent the past decade developing small-scale computer simulations of geologic activity, primarily in Latin America, and has long advocated that the risks posed to human life by volcanic flows could be greatly mitigated by creating large-scale simulations of these phenomena. He is a member of a multidisciplinary team at UB that is using supercomputers to simulate Mexican volcanoes, funded by a $1.9 million National Science Foundation grant.

He had obtained National Science Foundation funding for the expedition to El Reventador, but it now has been postponed.

The purpose of the trip was to determine the course of the ash and mud flows and their physical properties and to gather samples for analysis that would allow the scientists to better predict the hazards related to future eruptions at this volcano and at others.

"When we study this type of volcano, we look for changes in topography," said Sheridan. "We have models of the topography of volcanoes and surrounding areas before eruptions and by combining our fieldwork and modern satellite data, we create three-dimensional models of differences in the earth's surface since the eruption. This allows us to make more accurate hazard maps for future eruptions of this type."

Sheridan may be reached at 716-655-3904.

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