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Atmospheric dispersion, environmental effects and potential health hazard associated with the low-altitude gas plume of Masaya volcano, Nicaragua

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Masaya volcano (560 m a.s.l.), Nicaragua, resumed its degassing activity in mid-1993 with the continuous emission of SO2 at rates increasing from 600 metric tons (t) day–1 (7.0 kg s–1) in 1995 to 1800 t day–1 (21.0 kg s–1) in 1999. The low-altitude gas plume is typically blown westward by the prevailing wind across the Masaya caldera and Las Sierras highlands, which are at a higher elevation than the gas vent. In this study, the areal distribution of atmospheric SO2 concentrations was monitored within 44 km of the vent with a network of passive samplers. Measured SO2 air concentrations ranged from <2 to 90 ppbv in 1998 and from <2 to 230 ppbv in 1999. The data suggest that the volcanic emissions influenced air quality across a 1,250-km2 area downwind. Local topography exerts a strong control on plume dispersal, and hilltops are particularly prone to fumigation and thus, to high ambient SO2 levels. In a zone 22 km2 in size located within 15 km of the source, the response of vegetation to sustained exposure to high atmospheric dose of volcanic SO2 and HF resulted in a strong reduction in the number of plant communities. A transition zone of somewhat indefinite boundary surrounds the devastated zones and exhibits vegetation damage in the form of leaf injury. In addition to the environmental impacts of the volcanic emissions, both short- and long-term public health hazards may exist in areas most exposed to the plume. The harmful effects of the volcanic emissions on cultivated vegetation could be diminished by using windbreaks made of gas-tolerant trees and shrubs such as Eugenia jambos, Brosimum utile and Clusia rosea. The current gas crisis at Masaya volcano provides an unique opportunity for investigating the atmospheric, environmental and medical impacts of volcanic gases and aerosols.

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Delmelle, P., Stix, J., Baxter, P. et al. Atmospheric dispersion, environmental effects and potential health hazard associated with the low-altitude gas plume of Masaya volcano, Nicaragua. Bull Volcanol 64, 423–434 (2002).

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