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Ecuadorian Volcanoes - Ready to Erupt?

Page 1 of 2 The headlines read:
Volcano's ash falls across Quito's outskirts - September 29, 1999
Ecuador's capital placed on alert as volcano rumbles - September 28, 1999
Ecuador volcano oozes lava pushed by diminishing seismic pressure - October 1, 1999
Huge cloud of smoke emerges from Ecuadorean volcano - October 7, 1999

For the last few months, Ecuadorians living in the vicinity of Quito and Volcano Alley have wondered: Is this the day?

Is this the day Pichincha or Tungurahua volcano will erupt?

They ask because of the following stories, quoted in full from their sources:

Ecuadoreans weary of forecasts cataclysmic volcano eruptions

QUITO, Ecuador -- (AP) -- For months, scientists have been predicting devastating volcanic eruptions in Ecuador -- prompting evacuations and school closings and disrupting life for hundreds of thousands of families.

The cataclysmic events have not taken place, and residents are growing weary and angry because volcanologists cannot agree what will happen next.

Predictions of an imminent ash eruption from Pichincha volcano, 7 1/2 miles west of Quito, have twice prompted officials to close 600 public and private schools in and around the city for days, forcing 320,000 students to fall behind in their classes.

And 25,000 people were evacuated on Oct. 16 from the tourist town Banos and nearby villages and hamlets on the slopes of the Tungurahua volcano, 78 miles south of Quito. The forced evacuation represents an economic disaster for the people involved, who have been left with no way to make a living.

Still, authorities have yet to announce the feared ``red alert,' warning of an eruption within hours, for either volcano.

Some Ecuadoreans have taken the cynical view that officials are using the volcanoes to distract people from the nation's deepening economic crisis and brewing political unrest.

Opponents of President Jamil Mahuad's centrist government have announced new national protests.

``Since new protests and strikes are coming, they're going to announce new eruptions,'' Alberto Cuesta, a computer technician, predicted as he read a newspaper on Avenida Amazonas in Quito's tourist district.

``News about the volcanoes doesn't even make the front page of the papers, and television has stopped reporting it,'' he said.

Vicente Rios, a farmer from Cotalo, a village four miles from Tungurahua, said he has stopped believing an eruption will come, despite the continuous column of black smoke pouring from the 16,553-foot volcano's crater.

``I'm going to go back to plant my little piece of land,'' he said in a television interview on Wednesday, threatening to defy government orders to stay out of the evacuated zone.

Both Pichincha volcano, 15,840 feet high, and Tungurahua volcano have been in an active eruptive process for weeks, releasing enormous seismic pressure with spectacular discharges of smoke and ash. Eruptions of smoke and ash can lead to respiratory problems for people nearby, especially those suffering from asthma.

Pichincha, which scientists do not expect to produce an explosion of lava, blew two large eruptions of ash the first week of October, and on several other occasions has blanketed this city of 1.4 million residents with a fine gray mist.

As a precaution, Education Minister Rosangela Adum last week ordered the closure of 400 schools in Quito and 200 schools in outlying areas.

Schools began reopening Monday -- five days after they were ordered shut -- when school administrators provided the government with emergency action plans to assure the children's safe delivery to their parents in the event of eruption.

On Wednesday evening, a minor eruption of ash dusted parts of the city, but prevailing winds carried most of the volcanic material away to the northwest.

The last time Pichincha had a giant eruption was in 1660, spewing ash that darkened the skies for nine straight days. The Tungurahua volcano exploded yearly from 1916 to 1920, hurling ash and hot stones down on Banos but sparing it from lava.

Recently, Tungurahua's lava-filled crater has spit out incandescent rocks and witnesses have reported hearing explosions like ``cannon shots'' up to nine miles away.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that unless the volcanoes continue to release built-up energy with smaller discharges, large eruptions are likely.

But they have repeatedly delivered contradictory predictions of when those eruptions will arrive.

On Oct. 22, Alexandra Alvarado, a scientist from Ecuador's Geophysical Institute, said Tungurahua would explode ``at any moment,'' while Patricia Mothes, an American volcanologist at the institute, predicted the eruption would come within a week to 10 days.

Despite the failed predictions, the experts insist violent eruptions are possible.

``Pichincha has built up enormous energy in the last three weeks,'' Mothes told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

``Something is going to happen in days or weeks,'' she said of a possible ash explosion. ``But it is very difficult to know when.''

During these days, the residents of Quito were warned again that the nearby Guagua Pichincha volcano could erupt in a matter of days. "Above all else, we must remain calm, but the countdown to an eventual eruption has commenced," Roque Sevilla, mayor of Quito cautioned.

Read more about the volcano activity

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