News Column

Mexican Volcano Could Impact Rio Grande Valley

July 15, 2013

Smoke from fires on Mexico's agricultural fields in past has choked the Rio Grande Valley in a gray blanket.

Sands have drifted from Africa's Sahara Desert to cloak the region in an orange haze.

Now experts say there's a remote chance that Popocatepetl, the volcano fuming near Mexico City, could send traces of ash to the area.

Friday, ash clouds forced authorities to close an airport at Puebla, Mexico's fourth-largest city, about 20 miles from the 17,886-foot volcano. Flights to Dallas and Houston use the airport.

Authorities said this past week that a lava dome growing inside the volcano's crater could cause further eruptions.

It's "slightly possible" that minute traces of volcanic ash could travel about 900 miles to the Rio Grande Valley, said Randall White, a volcanologist who serves as chief forecaster for the U.S. Geological Survey's International Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in Los Altos, Calif.

"A microscopic amount of ash could possibly get that far," White said.

A sustained south wind would have to carry the volcano's ashes to the region, said Justin Gibbs, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Service in Brownsville.

"It would take a south wind that didn't change directions for several hundred miles to get some of that up here," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said traces of ash could increase the chances of rain in the area.

"Microscopic ash may react with water molecules to increase cloud cover and increase precipitation," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said vestiges of ash could slightly change the color of the region's sunset.

"The sunset may change tint because of the way light is refracted through the atmosphere, maybe making it a little more orange or yellow," Gibbs said. "You might notice it, you might not."

But any trace of ash here would not affect allergy sufferers, said Jason Straub, a meteorologist at the weather station.

"Even if we did see particulates, it would have no affect on health," Straub said. "We wouldn't have a high enough concentration."

Experts noted the billowing of the Mexican volcano, Mexico's second-highest peak, can't compare to the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the volcano 90 miles south of Seattle that sent ash into America's Midwest.

Popocatepetl has spewed since 1999, White said.

Gibbs said that Dec. 18, 2000, marked the Mexican volcano's biggest eruption in 1,200 years.


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