The long-dormant Chaiten volcano blasted ash some 30km into the Andean sky on Tuesday, forcing the last of thousands to evacuate and fouling a huge stretch of the South American continent.
A thick column of ash climbed into the stratosphere and blew eastward for hundreds of kilometers over Patagonia to the Atlantic Ocean, closing schools and a regional airport. Chilean and Argentine citizens were advised to wear masks to avoid breathing the dangerous fallout.
Chilean officials ordered the total evacuation of Chaiten, a small provincial capital in an area of lakes and glacier-carved fjords just 10km from the roiling cloud.
Chilean Interior Minister Edmundo Perez said anyone still in the area should “urgently head to ships in the bay to be evacuated.”
More than 4,000 people were evacuated over the weekend and 350 more headed out on Tuesday.
Also emptied was the soot-coated border town of Futaleufu, about 120km from the volcano.
The five-day-old eruption is the first in 9,370 years, said Charles Stern, a volcanologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder who has studied Chaiten.
He said the nearby town could end up buried, much like the Roman city of Pompeii following Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in year 79.
Volcanic material from Chaiten’s last eruption measured up to 1.6m in places.
The gritty, gray-white blizzard of ash covered houses and roads.
Some people chose to remain in Futaleufu, donning masks when they dared to leave their homes.
About 1cm of ash coated the tourist town of Esquel, a Patagonian resort favored by backpackers and skiers at the foot of the Andes, where the airport and schools have been closed since Saturday.
The fallout covered a third of the province of Chubut, Provincial Governor Mario Das Neves said.
While volcanologists around the world eagerly awaited data on the scope of the eruption, one local expert got an up-close look when he accompanied police and air force teams over the 1,200m peak.
Volcanologist Juan Cayupi said by telephone that Chaiten’s two small craters had morphed into a large, single crater.
Lava was rising within the crater but has not yet spilled over, said Luis Lara, another volcanologist with the government’s Geology and Mining Service.