Reventador, in Ecuador, is a most satisfying volcano in many ways.
- It fits the stereotype: tall, pointy, frequent lava flows, and goes boom! a lot (el reventador means “the exploder”).
- Eruptions here are fun to watch:
- Very few people are within range of Reventador’s lava and pyroclastic flows, which usually don’t travel far from the volcano.
Some towns in the region do experience ashfall now and then. So does Quito, the nation’s capital, about 60 miles east of the volcano.
- The scenery is gorgeous. Reventador and other volcanoes sit in a nature reserve at the western end of a group of cloud-forested foothills that tumble down from the eastern Andes to disappear under cover of the Amazon floodplain’s tropical rainforest.
Of course, this is an imperfect world, so there are drawbacks.
Some are more serious than others.
For instance, a pipeline full of jet fuel and other processed petroleum products runs across Reventador’s flow field, along with two crude oil pipelines and the critical highway that connects Ecuador’s Oriente oil fields with its Pacific ports.
That’s quite a drawback.
I couldn’t believe it, either, but there are oil fields in the western Amazon Basin (eastern Ecuador).
Ecuador is one of our oil suppliers.
And a Texaco-Gulf consortium got the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Transport System (SOTE), one of those two crude oil pipelines mentioned above, started in the energy-critical 1970s. Ecuador took it over in the late 1980s.
Just to give you an idea visually of what is involved here. SOTE’s operator, Petroecuador, doesn’t have as good an environmental record as some other regional companies, but I haven’t looked into whether those companies do anything on this scale.
The other line — OCP, or Crudos Pesados Oil Pipeline — carries heavy crude and dates back to 2003.
Fortunately, the fuel/gas-carrying Poliducto Shushufindi-Quito pipe is buried. (I can’t find a helpful link on this one.)
The OCP line, unlike SOTE, wasn’t in operation when Reventador unexpectedly blew its top on November 3, 2002.
VEI 4 eruption in 2002
That day, constant earthquakes awoke oil workers at the OCP construction camp five miles from Reventador’s summit at around 3 a.m.
Seismographs in the area hadn’t picked up very much in the way of earlier activity, either. Hall et al. note that only an instrument located directly on the summit cone might have given warning of what was about to happen.
And there wasn’t one up there.
In terms of visual clues, tourists had climbed the cone two weeks earlier, finding only the usual steaming fumaroles. No satellite changes had been detected, either.
Reventador had been dozing like this for 26 years.
But magma probably really did move quickly up to the surface on November 3rd, starting at around 3 a.m. or a little earlier.
The conduit was plugged, so pressure built up. The magma continued its rapid upward ascent.
Something had to give. That turned out to be the upper 400 feet of Reventador’s summit.
A little after 7 a.m., an aircraft pilot reported seeing ash, but the main event began two hours later — just six hours after the volcano had awakened its closest human neighbors (and only seven hours after the first seismic precursors showed up on monitoring equipment).
Thousands of residents in the village of Reventador, nine miles away, didn’t wait for an official evacuation order; they left as soon as they heard the first blasts around 9 a.m.
Soon there was a roiling column of ash, 11 miles high, above the volcano, as well as secondary plumes lofted above at least five major pyroclastic flows that also happened this day.
One such flow headed for the OCP camp, where a worker took its picture just before topography diverted the lethal cloud in another direction. (Hall et al.)
I’m not sure who took this, but it looks to be just a snap or two after the one in Hall et al. that was taken at the camp by a very lucky OCP worker.
While a few local farms were hit hard, the closest that Reventador’s pyroclastic flows and subsequent lahars got to human infrastructure was the road and its pipelines.
The highway was covered by flow deposits in some areas and also lost many small bridges. These had to be rebuilt again and again as heavy rains after the eruption brought mulitple lahars down over the crucial road.
Some flows also struck and moved SOTE pipe segments filled with oil, but there was no spill. The underground fuel/gas line was out of reach, fortunately, and the OCP tube was empty because of ongoing work.
There were no known direct fatalities in this eruption (though some were reported later in connection with roof-cleaning work farther away from the volcano).
Ash reached Quito around 1 p.m. on November 3rd, and visibility worsened throughout the afternoon.
There wasn’t heavy ashfall here, but they had to close the airport, which couldn’t reopen for over a week although the eruption turned out to be a short one.
Afterwards, Reventador quickly returned to its old pattern of interspersed active and quiet periods, though its summit was now much lower than it had been on November 2, 2002.
Thanks to lots of lava flows and doming over the last 18 years, that summit today is more than a hundred feet higher than it was before the big blast.
Volcanoes can be very changeable places.
Volcanologists are pondering the sudden onset and explosiveness of the 2002 eruption. Was this just a fluke, or does it mean that major eruptions can happen without warning?
That’s unsettling, given how useful monitoring precursor activity is in forecasting volcanic activity nowadays.
The rest of us are still thinking about the pipelines.
The pipelines again
I only know what little could be found in online newspapers. In 2002, the operators said they would make changes after the eruption. These have apparently including burying parts of SOTE — an ongoing project.
In 2013, 230 miles of this roughly 310-mile-line pipeline were reportedly underground.
Yes, there have been some spills. It’s difficult to tell from the news whether any were due to Reventador Volcano or to landslides in the steep, wet terrain of this very active seismic region.
A landslide seems to have been behind the most recent, and perhaps worst spillage. In April 2020, both lines broke, spilling more than 11,000 barrels of crude near Reventador. It got into two big rivers.
In this video, at least, that appears to be subsidence, not a landslide. The Poliducto Shushufindi-Quito line was closed, too.
Cleanup is still underway. That’s tragic, but we’re here to talk about volcanoes today.
I will say that oil is a big part of Ecuador’s economy. We can’t expect them to give that up.
But the current oil glut may force things to change. A news review also showed that mergers are happening: a sign of financial pressures.
Hopefully, with its economic importance, the oil transport system will be cleaned up — not just literally, either — and made as efficient, and therefore profitable, as possible.
Time will tell.
Meanwhile, throughout all this human trouble and concern, Reventador just goes on doing its thing.
And people from all over the world come to film it.
0.077° S, 77.656° W, in Napo and Sucumbios provinces, Ecuador. The GVP Volcano Number is 352010.
Per the Global Volcanism Program:
- Within 5 km (3 miles): 484
- Within 10 km (6 miles): 963
- Within 30 km (19 miles): 4,403
- Within 100 km (62 miles): 2,619,647
High risk, Aviation Code Orange.
- Eruption styles: Vulcanian and Strombolian explosions, gassing, ash emissions, lava flows, pyroclastic flows, and lahars. Reventador has also had two major collapses in the past 300,000 years or so, the last time about 20,000 years ago.
That’s why today’s cone sits in a 2.5- x 2-mile-wide caldera that is open to the east (the direction in which Reventador Volcano versions 1.0 and 2.0 fell, surging out across the land like Mount St. Helens did in 1980).
- Biggest recorded event: The November 2002 VEI 4 eruption, Ecuador’s largest in over a century.
- Most recent eruption: Ongoing.
- Past history: See the GVP for details.
Written records go back to the 1500s, but very little is known about Reventador’s past history because of its inaccessibility and also because of the climate — global wind patterns mean that the east slopes of the Andes get a LOT of rain, while deserts form to the west. Weathering and vegetation work together to hide and destroy the evidence of past eruptions here.
Geophysics Institute, National Polytechnical School. (Spanish)
Washington VAAC (most recent ash advisory at time of posting: today).
Featured image: LABETAA Andre/Shutterstock
Brown, S.K.; Jenkins, S.F.; Sparks, R.S.J.; Odbert, H.; and Auker, M. R. 2017. Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification. Journal of Applied Volcanology, 6: 15.
Ferrari, L., and Tibaldi, A. 1992. Recent and active tectonics of the north-eastern Ecuadorian Andes. Journal of geodynamics, 15(1-2): 39-58.
Gill, N. 2013. PetroEcuador says biggest oil pipeline cut by Amazon landslide. http://amazonwatch.org/news/2013/0531-petroecuador-says-biggest-oil-pipeline-cut-by-amazon-landslide Last accessed September 4, 2020.
Global Volcanism Program. 1o74-2020. Reventador bulletins. https://volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=352010&vtab=Bulletin Last accessed September 4, 2020.
Hall, M.; Ramón, P.; Mothes, P.; LePennec, J. L.; and others. 2004. Volcanic eruptions with little warning: the case of Volcán Reventador’s Surprise November 3, 2002 Eruption, Ecuador. Revista geológica de Chile, 31(2): 349-358.
La Hora. 2002. SOTE keeps pumping. https://lahora.com.ec/noticia/1000118684/sote-mantiene-bombeo Last ACCESSED september 4, 2020.
___. They’ll change pipeline route. https://lahora.com.ec/noticia/1000119423/cambiarn-ruta-del-oleoducto Last accessed September 4, 2020.
___. 2007. Pipelines prepare for El Reventador. https://lahora.com.ec/noticia/554050/el-oleoducto-de-crudos-pesados-(ocp)-y-sistema-del-oleoducto-transecuatoriano-(sote)-se-preparan-para-enfrentar-posibles-problemas-ante-una-eventual-gran-erupcic3b3n-del-volcc3a1n-el-reventador-ubicado-al-oriente-de-quito-y-que-reanudc3b3-su-actividad-la-semana-pasada Last accessed September 4, 2020.
___. 2008. Petroecuador rules out pipeline damage due to Reventador volcano activity. https://www.lahora.com.ec/noticia/797189/petroecuador-descarta-daos-en-oleoducto-por-actividad-de-volcn-reventador Last accessed September 4, 2020.
___. 2013. SOTE threatened by the vagaries of nature. https://lahora.com.ec/noticia/1101528657/el-sote-amenazado-por-caprichos-de-la-naturaleza- Last accessed September 4, 2020.
Mainville, N. 2020. The real price of oil in the Amazon. https://www.amazonfrontlines.org/chronicles/real-price-oil-amazon/ Last accessed September r, 2020.
Oregon State University: Volcano World. 2020. Reventador http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/reventafor Last accessed September 4, 2020.
Tibaldi, A., and Ferrari, L. 1992. Latest Pleistocene-Holocene tectonics of the Ecuadorian Andes. Tectonophysics, 205(1-3): 109-125.
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Wikipedia (Spanish). 2019. Reventador. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reventador Last accessed September 4, 2020.