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What It's Like to Visit an Active Volcano

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While the publishing world reels from the effect of the ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull Volcano on air travel and the London Book Fair, I thought I'd share my somewhat more positive experience with an active volcano.

In April 2009, I traveled to Chaitén Volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile, the setting for my next novel. Chaitén Volcano came to life for the first time in 9,000 years on May 2, 2008 in a major rhyolitic eruption. The magma blasted 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) through Earth's crust in only about four hours, giving townspeople just 30 hours' warning. The plume ascended 12 miles (19 kilometers) into the stratosphere, covering much of Patagonia with volcanic ash and drifting as far east as the Atlantic.

The town of Chaitén lies six miles from the volcano at the mouth of the Rio Blanco. Chaitén was evacuated at the start of the eruption, with no loss of life. Heavy winter rains ten days later washed the ash that covered the denuded mountains into the river, creating a lahar that caused the banks of the Rio Blanco to overflow. 90% of the town was flooded. Over subsequent weeks, the river excavated a new course through Chaitén, destroying a significant part of the town.

When I visited, approximately 50 of the original 4,500 residents were still living in the town, even though the town was without electricity and running water. Residents got their water from clean streams, and purchased gasoline for their vehicles and generators from towns 100 miles away. Several stores were open, stocked with goods brought in by ferry. My guide arranged lodging for me in the town, where I saw the devastation first-hand. (more photos at "Chaitén Volcano - One Year Later." You can also see video footage of the volcano and the destruction of the town at my Boiling Point blog.)

But the real objective of my research trip was to visit the volcano. The road north of Chaitén was impassable because of the destruction caused by the volcano, so we drove as close as we could, and then walked. After two miles, we came to an open area of stark dead trees, and there was the volcano:

The mountain in the background in this zoomed-in photo -- an estimated 900 feet high -- is completely new. Before the eruption, this mountain didn't exist. Additionally, this area of new rock and steam vents is just a small part of the west side of the lava dome -- the entire caldera is nearly two miles across.

The trees nearest to the volcano are simply gone -- incinerated during the initial eruption. Farther away, the trees have been knocked down. Where I was standing less than a mile from the lava dome, the trees were stripped of their leaves and secondary vegetation by the initial blast of debris and hot gasses and have never recovered. Ferns and mosses are beginning to reclaim the area, but aside from these, I could have been shooting my pictures in black and white.

While there, we heard explosions that sounded like gunfire -- pop pop pop -- pop POP pop -- accompanied by a low rumbling, and felt a small earthquake. At the time, the government agency in charge of monitoring volcanic activity in that country was reporting an average of 18 earthquakes a day in the volcano's vicinity, though most were too small to be felt.

People ask if I was afraid. I can honestly say that I was not. While I knew that due to the instability of the lava dome, another pyroclastic flow was a very real possibility, I figured the odds of such an event occurring while I happened to be there were relatively small.

Instead, I felt nothing but awe. There's a sense of enormity in the presence of an active volcano, a keen awareness of forces unimaginable that's difficult to convey. To be in an area of both destruction and creation and observe firsthand the forces that shaped much of our earth engenders a feeling approaching reverence. I understand now why the ancients worshiped volcanoes.


All in all, the trip to Chaitén Volcano was beyond amazing. Seeing the volcano's steam vents, hearing the mountain crackle and rumble, watching the plume build into gigantic cumulonimbus-like clouds while standing in a valley that was devastated by a pyroclastic flow was an incredible experience that truly informs my new novel. It's hard to imagine any research trip I might take in the future that could possibly top visiting an active volcano -- unless perhaps I decide to write a thriller about a lunar landing gone wrong!

Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point (October 2008, Berkley), a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Berkley will publish her next novel, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming in January 2011. For more information about her, go to www.karendionne.net.