South American eruption reveals lessons for NZ

Ash erupted from the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic chain disrupting flights between New Zealand and Chile for about a month. Photo / supplied
Ash erupted from the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic chain disrupting flights between New Zealand and Chile for about a month. Photo / supplied

New Zealand could learn vital lessons from how Chile and Argentina dealt with the volcanic eruption of Puyehue-Cordon Caulle last year, scientists say.

After a field trip to South America, researchers found that a volcanic eruption here would block rivers, create flooding and volcanic mudflows.

But New Zealand is much better prepared to face such a disaster, having gone through the Canterbury earthquakes, say the team from University of Canterbury.

Dr Thomas Wilson and colleagues Dr Carol Stewart, and postgraduate student Heather Bickerton, recently led an international team that studied the effects of the June 2011 eruption of Puyehue-Cordon Caulle

He said that southern Chile and Argentina were very similar to New Zealand's climate and landscape, and they aimed to record the impact the eruption had on agriculture, infrastructure and health.

Data collected from the field trip to help create a volcanic ash analysis protocol for New Zealand, in collaboration with Massey University and GNS Science.

They also assessed emergency management procedures in response to the disaster by Chile and Argentina authorities.

"While individual emergency managers were highly dedicated, these individual efforts were hampered by poor coordination between agencies," Dr Wilson says.

"There were also difficulties in how scientific information was communicated to the public, such as the likelihood of future eruptions and the health risks posed by the fine grained volcanic ash in the atmosphere and water supplies. These are good lessons for New Zealand."

Dr Wilson says local scientists will be better prepared for future natural disasters after experiencing the Christchurch earthquakes first hand.

"As scientists, we were much more seasoned having been through a natural disaster in Christchurch, so it meant we knew what to look for in South America.

"It was striking to see Argentine communities, emergency managers and scientists all struggling with similar problems to what we experienced in Christchurch.

"It's important to have reliable, well-practised and robust plans in place before an eruption, so that in the event of an eruption people and agencies are able to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons."

- APNZ

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