, Volume 73, Issue 3, pp 223-239

Ash storms: impacts of wind-remobilised volcanic ash on rural communities and agriculture following the 1991 Hudson eruption, southern Patagonia, Chile

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Abstract

Tephra fall from the August 1991 eruption of Volcán Hudson affected some 100,000 km2 of Patagonia and was almost immediately reworked by strong winds, creating billowing clouds of remobilised ash, or ‘ash storms’. The immediate impacts on agriculture and rural communities were severe, but were then greatly exacerbated by continuing ash storms. This paper describes the findings of a 3-week study tour of the diverse environments of southern Patagonia affected by ash storms, with an emphasis on determining the impacts of repeated ash storms on agriculture and local practices that were developed in an attempt to mitigate these impacts. Ash storms produce similar effects to initial tephra eruptions, prolonged for considerable periods. These have included the burial of farmland under dune deposits, abrasion of vegetation and contamination of feed supplies with fine ash. These impacts can then cause problems for grazing animals such as starvation, severe tooth abrasion, gastrointestinal problems, corneal abrasion and blindness, and exhaustion if sheep fleeces become laden with ash. In addition, ash storms have led to exacerbated soil erosion, human health impacts, increased cleanup requirements, sedimentation in irrigation canals, and disruption of aviation and land transport. Ash deposits were naturally stabilised most rapidly in areas with high rainfall (>1,500 mm/year) through compaction and enhanced vegetation growth. Stabilisation was slowest in windy, semi-arid regions. Destruction of vegetation and suppression of regrowth by heavy tephra fall (>100 mm) hindered the stabilisation of deposits for years, and reduced the surface friction which increased wind erosivity. Stabilisation of tephra deposits was improved by intensive tillage, use of windbreaks and where there was dense and taller vegetative cover. Long-term drought and the impracticality of mixing ash deposits with soil by tillage on large farms was a barrier to stabilising deposits and, in turn, agricultural recovery. The continuing ash storms motivated the partial evacuation of small rural towns such as Chile Chico (Chile) and Los Antiguos (Argentina) in September–December 1991, after the primary tephra fall in August 1991. Greatly increased municipal cleanup efforts had to be sustained beyond the initial tephra fall to cope with the ongoing impacts of ash storms. Throughout the 1990s, ash storms contributed to continued population migration out of the affected area, leaving hundreds of farms abandoned on the Argentine steppe. The major lesson from our study is the importance of stabilisation of ash deposits as soon as possible after the initial eruption, particularly in windy, arid climates. Suggested mitigation measures include deep cultivation of the ash into the soil and erecting windbreaks.

Editorial responsibility: D. Granados