“The real difficulty about volcanism is not to see how it can start, but how it can stop”
(Sir Harold Jefferys, Earthquakes and Mountains)
Later in the month, I will return to Mexico City to offer a seminar on man-made and natural disasters; two topics which often overlap. While Mexico has its share of natural calamities; hurricanes, landslides, floods, and, devastating earthquakes, their immediate concern is with an ongoing volcanic eruption of Popocatepetl. Known locally as “El Popo”, Mexico’s second highest peak (15,000 feet/ 4,500 meters), lies in the eastern half of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt, halfway between the nation’s capital and the nearby city of Puebla. Although the country’s National Disaster Prevention Center keeps a 24/7 watch, they admit that they are unable to fully anticipate an eruption. Early in July the giant released enough ash, to dust cars and disrupt flights to and from Mexico City and the activity has continued to intensify. In previous eruptions the fiery mountain has been known to hurl towers of steam, ash and incandescent rocks, miles high up into the atmosphere.
Popocatepetl is a steep conical formation known as a stratovolcano; the same type as Washington State’s Mt. St. Helens, whose deadly eruption costing 57 lives came just seconds after a 5.1 magnitude quake. For those nearby, the immediate danger is from landslides and swiftly moving gases. At a distance, volcanic ash can stall and ruin motors, collect on roof tops and cause structural collapse, as well as widespread eye irritation and respiratory difficulties. Considering both its location and the number of people that could be affected, El Popo could be considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. This reality has prompted the government to formulate evacuation routes for as many as 75,000 people from the nearby state of Puebla and to set up shelters stocked with food, water, clothing and other necessities. Officials have also announced plans to distribute 500,000 face masks to residents in case the ash blows toward the capital. In my experience, these flimsy paper masks are of less than little use and residents would do well to stock up on some of the sturdier avian flu varieties available in most drugstores or pharmacies.
Popocatepetl has been active for over 500,000 thousand years and until recently contained glaciers. The Aztecs, (who were actually called Mexicas), gave it this formal name which, in their Nahuatl language means “smoking mountain”; and they personified it as a legendary warrior. Popocatepetl was said to have sought the hand of Iztaccihuatl in a Romeo and Juliet tale; ending with the lovers turning into twin mountains overlooking the Valley of Mexico, east of the capital. The dormant peak of Iztaccihuatl (Sleeping Lady) has become part of a national park and while El Popo has been closed off, it can be seen on those increasingly rare, clear days. The volcano also has another nickname, “Don Goyo” (Gregory), who is believed to be a spirit that resides within the mountain and comes to warn locals of impending eruptions. (David Baker, UK Daily Mail, April 21, 2012).
By any standard, a volcanic eruption is an awe-inspiring, many splendored event. Residents of Santiago Xalitzintla, Puebla, honor Don Goyo on March 12, St. Gregory’s feast day, with a ceremony and offerings at the base of the volcano. It has been reported that offerings of beer, mole, pulque and tequila were made following a recent explosion.
Mexican poet Homero Aridjis says that, since Aztec times and even before, people have attached great significance to the timing of these eruptions. “Popo is a godlike figure, like the Japanese Mount Fuji …a natural presence, an historical one, a figure of legend”. And recently, the satirical web site: eldeforma.com, has suggested that the locals might consider updating and augmenting their rituals with the sacrifice of one member of congress every hour until the monster agrees to calm down. (Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org )