How the Armero tragedy changed volcanology in Colombia
The deadly eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in 1985 made Colombian volcanologists realize that studying natural phenomena was irrelevant if they could not share their knowledge to avoid predictable tragedies.
On 13 November 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, killing more than 25,000 people in Armero—a town of 30,000 inhabitants—making it the worst natural disaster in the history of Colombia.
Marta Lucía Calvache Velasco, the technical director of the Colombian Geological Service (SGC), was studying the volcano 1 month before the eruption. She and her colleagues had submitted a report to the Colombian congress describing the geological history of the site and warning of the likelihood of an eruption within the next months or years.
The warnings were mostly ignored. The documentary El valle sin sombras (The valley without shadows) by Colombian filmmaker Rubén Mendoza compiled the experiences of some survivors. Resident Gabrielina Ferruccio says in the film that when ash started falling on Armero on the eve of the eruption, she went to church to ask for advice; the priest told her to “enjoy this beautiful show, it will never be seen again.” Edilma Loiza remembers how at 6 p.m., “a fire truck went through town telling everybody to stay at home, to not leave home or panic.” The catastrophic lahars (avalanches of volcanically induced landslides and debris flows) occurred 5 hours later.
The second volume of the book Forecasting and Planning for Volcanic Hazards, Risks, and Disasters (2020) includes a chapter written by a group of Colombian geologists led by Calvache. They describe how geologists in the country have worked to avoid future disasters by improving monitoring, creating a legal framework, and raising awareness in at-risk populations. The text clarifies how Colombian volcanologists realized that studying natural phenomena was irrelevant if they could not share their knowledge in a way that policymakers and the public understood the urgency to avoid predictable tragedies.
Monitoring and Studying Volcanic Hazards
“The fact that there is a volcanic eruption should not be a synonym for disaster.”
Colombian volcanology grew rapidly and exponentially thanks to international aid that arrived after the disaster and helped establish a network of observatories. Today, there are 600 stations that monitor and investigate 23 active volcanoes. Additionally, 14 hazard maps have been produced for local authorities to use. “The fact that there is a volcanic eruption should not be a synonym of disaster,” said Calvache. Policymakers and scientists learned they could protect the nearby communities as long as they understood what was happening geologically.
In June 1989, the Nevado del Ruiz had an eruption similar to the one that destroyed Armero. As soon as one of the new monitoring stations detected an increase in seismic activity, the SGC started to produce daily updates on the status of the volcano. On 30 August, the SGC told the local community that an eruption was imminent and evacuations were necessary.
Just 4 years after the Armero tragedy, when the Nevado del Ruiz erupted again, there was no human loss.
“In 1985, Colombia didn’t even have an institution in charge of volcanoes,” remembered volcanologist Diego Mauricio Gómez Martínez of the SGC. Geologists advocated for the passage of decree 919 of 1989, which created the first legal and institutional framework for risk management in the country. The agency it created, Ingeominas, was put in charge of assessing and preventing volcano risk; in 2012 the agency changed its name to the SGC.
The legal framework has brought new and unforeseen problems, as well as ways to address existing ones.
Lucio Figuero, an Indigenous leader who has lived more than 60 years near the Galerasvolcano (named Urkunima by locals, meaning “mountain of fire” in the Quillasinga language), argues that the risk management strategy has been negative for his community, for example. When the volcano reactivated in 2004, the locality of Mapachico, where Figuero lives, was designated a risk zone. With the new designation, “all possibilities of construction or investment stopped, condemning us to poverty.…The price of land devalued so much that if we sell it, we won’t have enough money to move anywhere else,” said Figuero.
Several families from the region brought a lawsuit demanding to be relocated outside the risk area of Galeras, which has erupted 25 times in the past 30 years. After their request was denied by several regional courts, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled in their favor, arguing that resettlement was necessary because of “the fundamental rights to life and dignified housing.”
According to Figuero, new studies are being conducted to determine a new hazard map for the region—almost 10 years after the Constitutional Court ruling. He hopes that when the new hazard map is completed, his community will be able to stay in their territory and “learn to live with the volcan,” although acknowledging there is a possibility they will have to be relocated. If that happens, he hopes the government will be able to provide some economic support.
Raising Awareness in At-Risk Populations
Monitoring and the legal framework are useful tools to prevent disasters. However, Calvache believes that community awareness of volcanic phenomena will ensure that if an eruption occurs, there will be no disaster. The SGC has partnered with local universities and schools to produce videos, posters, radio spots, and an online teaching module. “We have to do science that can be shared,” said Calvache.
Gomez believes that for the awareness to be effective, “communities need to be able to appropriate scientific knowledge.” This belief is the reason Gómez organized the first youth conference in Pasto after a visit to Japan in 2011, where he was inspired by the way risk prevention focused on the experiences of youth living in volcanic regions. He organized an event in which more than 150 children from all over Colombia shared their stories with peers, learned about volcanoes, and studied risk management.
Students who live in at-risk zones around Colombia’s Azufral volcano attended the Second Volcano Biennial in 2019 with members of the Colombian Red Cross and the country’s Civil Defense. Credit: Colombian Geological Service
The goal of such projects is to allow local communities to share their experiences and promote volcanic risk management for new generations in Colombia.