Mexican volcano forces local airports to suspend operations

22 million people watch the city's "stop light" keenly as the volcano continues to spit out clouds of ash and hot rocks.
Amal Jos Chacko
An image of Popocatepetl emitting a cloud of ash on 18 May 2023.
An image of Popocatepetl emitting a cloud of ash on 18 May 2023.


Rumblings and ash from Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano forced authorities to shut down Mexico City’s two main airports temporarily on Saturday, 20th May, the Associated Press reported.

While Benito Juarez International Airport suspended operations at 4:25 AM and until 10 AM, the military-operated Felipe Angeles airport shut down operations for five hours, beginning at 6 AM.

This came after 11 villages were forced to cancel school sessions on Friday, the 19th when the volcano belched clouds of ash into the air.

“El Popo,” as the volcano is affectionately called, is situated about 45 miles (72 km) southeast of Mexico City. The 17,797-foot (5,426-meter) peak lay dormant for decades until awakening in 1994, when it spewed gas and ash, forcing the evacuation of nearby towns.

Scientists have been monitoring Popocatepetl with each heave, sigh, and tick examined by an array of sensors, cameras, and other equipment.

Mexico City’s proximity to the volcano could see the city enveloped in ash and isolated from any air traffic.

Six cameras, a thermal imaging device, and 12 seismological monitoring stations operating 24 hours a day around the summit keep a command center in Mexico City updated with any developments.

A team of 13 scientists ensures the command center is staffed round the clock and tracks readings reported by seismographs measuring the volcano’s internal trembling, ready to sound the alarm if Popocatepetl displays signs of implosion.

Additionally, gasses at nearby springs and the peak are monitored, along with wind patterns, to predict what areas would be carpeted with ash if the peak were to blow. Cameras and sensors monitor the shape of Popocatepetl, which could see temporary deformation due to the forces inside, closer to eruption.

Although these measurements and systematic readings help authorities be well-informed, all this information is diluted into a simple “stop light” for the benefit of the public: green indicating safety, yellow for alert, and red for danger.

Since its introduction, the stop light has been stuck at yellow for most of the years. Popocatepetl seldom quiets down, and not for long, instead showering out hot rocks that tumble down and exhale spurts of gas and ash.

Mexico City, no stranger to natural disasters, is equipped with systems to detect any calamity. Its soft soil makes it vulnerable to earthquakes hundreds of miles away on the Pacific coast. Seismic monitors along the coast keep an eye on any suspicious movement, giving the city’s residents up to half a minute to get to safety once the sirens start blaring.

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