Popocatepetl is Mexico’s second largest volcano, after El Pico de Orizaba. Popocatepetl rises to a height of 5500 meters (18,045 feet) and is located approximately mid-way between Mexico City, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the northwest, and the city of Puebla, a similar distance to the east.
In the past week, Popocatepetl (aka “Popo” or “Don Goyo”) has sprung back into life, blowing off steam and ash in a series of minor eruptions, accompanied by minor earth tremors, many of which registered between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale. Incandescent rocks (“volcanic bombs”) have been thrown up to 1000 meters (3000 feet) from the crater down the slopes of volcano, and water vapor, gasses and ash have formed towering clouds, up to 2000 meters high, rising above the iconic volcano.
The latest eruptions of Popocatepetl come from an estimated sixty different vents that are connected to a magma chamber 10 km (6 miles) beneath the volcano that is thought to hold upwards of 1,000,000 cubic meters (36,000,000 cubic feet) of magma. On the one hand, the small eruptions are good news, since they relieve the pressure building up underground, at least temporarily. On the other hand, they may presage a much more serious and major eruption.
Thousands of families live in the farming villages on the lower slopes of the volcano; some 25 million people live within a 100 kilometer (60 mile) radius. In the event of a major eruption, and depending on wind directions, airborne ash could fall on Mexico City, interrupting normal activities and Mexico City’s busy international airport, or on the Metropolitan area of Puebla (population 2.7 million), an important industrial center, where Volkswagen has its main vehicle factory.
Even though geophysicists are unable to say whether or when a major eruption will actually occur, authorities have raised the threat level and taken steps to ensure that local residents can be safely evacuated, if necessary, to emergency shelters in nearby public buildings such as schools. Almost 200 temporary shelters have been prepared in nearby villages to house any people that are forced to leave their homes.
Mexico’s National Disaster Prevention Centre (El Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres, Cenapred) has raised the alert level to “yellow stage three” – the third highest level. This level indicates that a magma expulsion is possible and that the intensity of explosions is likely to increase.
- Access to latest CENAPRED report (in Spanish and English) English link is under “Reportes”
In the event that the alert is raised still further, into the red zone, villages within a 12-km zone will be immediately evacuated, and the exclusion zone may be extended still further if this is deemed a prudent safety measure. During the last major evacuation, in 2000, nearly 50,000 residents in three states were moved into temporary shelters.
As in the case of previous volcanic eruptions in Mexico, such as Paricutín in the 1940s, the Mexican Army would take charge of ensuring that local residents are taken to safety.
Roads are being kept open, and emergency repaving is underway, in case an evacuation is required. Local villages are arranging to have sufficient buses standing by to ensure that their residents can be evacuated rapidly should the alert level be raised. Even so, it is unlikely that everyone would choose to leave, and it is thought that up to half the population might attempt to remain in their homes even if the alert level is raised.
Images of the volcano:
- Photo gallery (El Informador)
- Photo gallery (El Universal) – this also includes tabs/links to background, map, and alert system details
Health authorities have already distributed free face masks and bottles of water to families in the area. The cloth face masks are intended to filter out the fine ash released by the volcano, and reduce the likely increase in respiratory problems. Falling ash is also expected to lead to an increased incidence of allergic conjunctivitis.
Authorities in the city of Puebla have temporarily suspended open air activities until further notice since much of the city has received a thin layer of ash. Ash falls of about one centimeter have been reported in some districts of the city. Ash has also fallen over the nearby town of Cholula and as far away as Atlixco and Huejotzingo.
Puebla hoteliers, restauranteurs and merchants will be hoping that the city’s restriction on open air activities ends quickly, since the city is gearing up for the annual festivities associated with the 5 de Mayo (5 May) festival for which the city is famous. (The festival commemorates Mexico’s victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862).
- Mexico’s Volcanic Axis
- Which tectonic plates affect Mexico?
- The important but often overlooked state of Puebla
- The Cinco de Mayo holiday is far more widely celebrated in the USA than in Mexico
- Battle of Puebla re-enacted each year on Cinco de Mayo (May 5), but in Mexico City
- The eruption of El Chichón volcano in 1982