FEARS were raised for the health of the residents of Wales’ only outpost last night, as a blanket of ash exerted a stranglehold on Patagonia.
Large swathes of the Argentinean region lay under a choking cloud of smoke and ash after the eruption of the long-dormant volcano of Chaiten in neighbouring Chile.
And the community, which retains strong Welsh links after being first settled 150 years ago, has experienced terrifying periods of “nuclear nights” when the pollution in the air has been so thick that it has blocked out the mid-afternoon sun. Earlier there were dramatic scenes, as ash was spewed 20 miles into the sky by the eruption.
In key Welsh Patagonian towns like Esquel and Trevelin, residents had to wear face masks whenever they went outside. Livestock were also beginning to die from breathing air and drinking water clogged with thick volcanic ash.
The area – known in Welsh as Y Wladfa – yesterday remained largely isolated from the outside world, with airports closed and roads opening sporadically because of the amount of ash on the road, up to 3cm deep in places.
Thousands of people were forced to evacuate from the towns of Chaiten and Futaleufu in Chile earlier this week after the volcano’s first eruption in 9,000 years blew a thick column of ash eastward for hundreds of miles over Patagonia and Argentina to the Atlantic Ocean.
Patagonia is just half-an-hour’s drive from the volcano.
“It looks like all the world like it has been snowing heavily – imagine a scene from the cartoon South Park,” said Gill Stephen, a teacher from Cardiff who is currently teaching in Ysgol Gymraeg yr Andes (Andes Welsh School) as part of the Welsh Language Project established in 1997.
“In fact, it’s a bit of a worry because it is pumice stone so it is quite abrasive and there are concerns for the health of people and animals that are breathing it.
“You can see in the flash of a camera that the air is thick with these particles – thicker than any fog you can imagine.”
Residents of the larger towns in Patagonia – a region on the borders of Chile and Argentina to where 3,000 Welsh people emigrated between 1865 and 1912 – can still get water from the mains but thousands of litres of bottled water have been transported to smaller outlying towns and villages.
And the weekend’s popular Eisteddfod de Trevelin, where opera star Rhys Meirion performed, took place under thick cloud and has already been dubbed “Eisteddfod y Llwch” (Eisteddfod of Dust).
Ms Stephen said she knew nothing of the eruption until white flakes began falling on her clothes as she waited for a bus on Friday morning in Esquel, a town popular with backpackers and skiers.
“I thought it had started snowing but when I got on to the bus they didn’t melt and that’s when I realised what it was,” she said.
“It is an event that has taken everybody by surprise, nobody has seen anything like this before.”
Experts are now waiting to see whether the volcano will affect the world’s climate.
So far, Chaiten has emitted only a few thousand tons of sulphur dioxide.
In general, a volcano must spew at least one million tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to have a global effect on climate.
After eruptions of unusual size, sulphur dioxide, converted into sulphuric acid, can form a thin white cloud in the atmosphere that reflects sunlight away from Earth.
The Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo produced a brief cooling of the climate after spewing 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide in 1991.
Luis Lara, a volcanologist with the Chilean government’s Geology and Mining Service, said lava was rising within Chaiten without yet spilling over.
Atuel Williams, the former president of Eisteddfod de Trevelin, said streetlights were sometimes being lit during the day because of the artificial darkness.
“There is a lot of smoke here and it is very difficult to breathe without a mask,” he said.
“The people in Chaiten are more worried about the lava but here they are worried about how long the situation is going to last.
“We are fine, but we are hoping it will finish.
“Sheep and cows are starting to die because they cannot drink the water, or they are drinking it and it is thick with ash.”
Page 2 - The story of Wales’ only outpost
Page 2 - A short history of Welsh links with Patagonia