Volcano monitoring in Chile: the lessons of Chaitén 26 July 2008Posted by admin in Chaitén, Chile, natural hazards, volcano monitoring.
Tags: Chaitén, Chile, natural hazards, South America, volcano monitoring
Yesterday Chaitén completed its twelfth week of continuous eruption. Its current behaviour is enigmatic, presenting one character below the surface (significant seismic activity) and one character above (subdued eruptive activity) but it is clear that it is far from finished. Since it began erupting on 2 May it has spread disruption far and wide and landed the Chilean authorities with some very big problems. There has been some criticism of the response of the national and local authorities in Chile to this eruption - in this blog for example – but there has to be some understanding as well.
Chile’s resources are not unlimited, and, sad to say, volcano monitoring has simply not been a political priority (although even had there been a much more extensive system of monitoring, Chaitén, silent for 10,000 years, would still have come as a surprise). SERNAGEOMIN was never intended to serve primarily as a hazard mitigation and public protection agency. Since its creation in 1980 its primary job has been essentially economic: facilitating the commercial exploitation of Chile’s mineral resources. Volcano monitoring developed as an add-on, not as a central responsibility.
This is why the volcanologists at SERNAGEOMIN have struggled for decades to do their jobs with limited budgets and restricted resources. They are dedicated people and have achieved remarkable results, but one volcanological observatory and a handful of monitored volcanoes is far below the necessary minimum for Chile. This is also a large part of the reason why public communication about volcanic risks, and reporting of ongoing eruptions, is so poor in Chile: a political and bureaucratic culture in which information is something one keeps to oneself is partly to blame, but it is also a fact that the staff and resources are not there to do the job properly.
The fragmentation of responsibility among Chile’s tangle of government agencies is also an obstacle to effective public communication. SERNAGEOMIN is merely one of the elements in the Chilean governmental acronym soup: ONEMI, MINVU, INDAP, MOP are just some of the other national state bodies involved at Chaitén. Throw in the regional and provincial governments, along with a grandstanding politician or two, with everyone saying different (and sometimes contradictory) things, and the result is confusion. To give one example, does anyone, within the Chilean Government or outside, actually know whether SERNAGEOMIN or ONEMI is the lead agency in dealing with volcanic emergencies? The division of responsibility should be clear, and the Chilean public, not to mention the outside world, should be able to go to one or the other and get all the information they need. That isn’t happening.
One of the results of the Chaitén eruption is that things seem to be changing. The Chilean Senate has approved a proposal that would make volcano monitoring and hazard mitigation a political and technical priority for the Government of Chile; a five-year plan to significantly upgrade the monitoring of volcanoes in Chile, which would see the number of volcanoes monitored increase from 7 to 43, has been announced by SERNAGEOMIN; and the USGS is working with Chile on improved volcano monitoring and warning systems. And, not least, private individuals and groups on the ground in Chile and elsewhere – the very people who have to live with volcanic hazards day to day – are using the World Wide Web to make up for the lack of official information by creating their own volcano monitoring, news and information sites. The fullest information about Chaitén, for example, can be found at Werner Luis’s pages on the eruption, while if you want to know about Llaima you’ll find far more information and up-to-date coverage via the private POVI initiative than you will through any official source.
The Chaitén eruption has provided motivation for a change in Chile’s official attitude to its volcanoes and the risks they pose. It is to be hoped that the momentum will not be lost once Chaitén quietens down again (whenever that may be).
For all our Chaitén coverage: Chaitén « The Volcanism Blog
Global Volcanism Program: Chaitén – summary information for Chaitén (1508-41)
ONEMI, Oficina Nacional de Emergencia – Chilean government emergencies office (Spanish)
SERNAGEOMIN – Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Spanish)