The plagues of June and the short tale of a volcanic love affair

The plagues of June and the short tale of a volcanic love affair
A plume of ash and steam rises from the Popocatepetl volcano as seen from the town of Santiago Xalizintla, Mexico - Photo: Marco Ugarte/AP
English 06/07/2020 17:41 Mexico City Omar Vidal  Actualizada 17:43
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“While there is life there is hope. I beg to assert...that as long as a man's heart beats, as long as a man's flesh quivers, I do not allow that a being gifted with thought and will can allow himself to despair.” ― Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth

I write these lines on the afternoon of 25 June 2020, inspired by two great clouds that have appeared.  The first cloud came from 35 exhalations of thunder, gas, and volcanic ash with which mighty Don Goyo, the Popocatépetl Volcano, stained the skies of central Mexico.  The second cloud, 10 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide, comprised millions of locusts that since May have flown over Argentina, but that, today, mysteriously disappeared upon their descent to earth—and now no one knows for certain where they are. 
Those two unrelated cloud-events, separated from one other by more than eight thousand kilometers, abruptly brought me to the illustrated tales of plagues in Egypt that I read as a youngster.  I read them as I used to read when I was a child, while hiding motionless and breathing noiselessly under my bed so that no one could find me, in the room I shared with my older brother.  It was many years later that I discovered those plagues described in much more, and frightening detail in Exodus, the book of Moses, the slavery of Hebrews, and the Promised Land.
I’m afraid that I will never know if those were just metaphors, supernatural curses, or calamities inflicted by God to force the Pharaoh to abolish slavery.  What I have read, however, suggests that all or most of those plagues might have been related to environmental disruptions facilitated by humans in the Nile River Valley.  Disruptions caused by water pollution, viruses, and other calamities that were in turn exacerbated by changes in the climate triggered by volcanic eruptions.
In any case, it is noteworthy that the ten plagues of Ancient Egypt are related to fresh water, batrachians, lice, flies, cattle, viruses, heat and cold, locusts, absence of light, and the angel of death:
water turned to blood,
plague of frogs,
plague of lice,
plague of flies,
plague of murrain,
plague of boils,
plague of hail,
plague of locusts,
plague of darkness,
plague of the death of the first born.
Reality or fiction, the plagues of Ancient Egypt make me think, in Mexico this June in the XXI century, of the Covid-19 pandemic, of massive waves of seaweed smothering the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, of the great red dust cloud from the Sahara, the recent 7.4 earthquake in Oaxaca, and the fumarole from the Popocatépetl.  And, as if this weren’t enough, a day in June has been the most violent of the year for Mexico, with 117 citizens murdered.  These are the plagues of June today.
In June, the curve of the coronavirus pandemic reached an all-time peak, which brought heartbreaking outcomes to our country: at least 226, 089 people infected, and 27,769 people killed by the invisible aggressor.  Our country is now a traffic light of red and orange, and nobody knows when the green will come.  Unemployment, weariness, and despair walk hand in hand, and all nurture a national tragedy that in turn feeds a global catastrophe so far leaving more than ten million people infected and nearly half a million people killed by the coronavirus.
Also in June, thousands of tons of seaweed began arriving on Mexico’s Atlantic shores.  No one can claim to have been surprised, since we all know well that over the last five years this marine macroalga has annually devastated the coasts of Quintana Roo in the Caribbean, Mexico’s main tourist destination.  An ominous sequel for a crisis that repeats itself every year, like the time-trap of a recurring nightmare, while authorities and tourism businesses fail to deliver on their repeated promises of finding a solution.  They fail to put their money where their mouth is to address the serious impacts brought about by seaweed on tourism, the economy, and some of the world’s most unique and valuable ecosystems.  Like ostriches, we continue hiding our heads in the sand thinking the problem will disappear on its own.
In June, after travelling more than ten thousand kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, a humongous cloud loaded with millions of tons of “dust and sand” arrived at the Yucatan Peninsula from the Sahara and the Sahel Deserts of Africa.  A recurring phenomenon, but which this year has an intensity not seen in half a century, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM).  These are clouds that transport metallic stowaways such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, silicon, and mercury; besides carrying viruses, bacteria, fungi, and organic pollutants that, when arriving in cities, worsen air quality and affect people with respiratory problems, and children and the elderly. 
As if this wasn’t enough, on 23rd June a 7.4 earthquake shook us.  With the epicenter in La Crucecita, Oaxaca, the quake left behind ten people dead, thousands homeless, and huge material losses in dozens of towns.
Thank goodness, we are now in July.
I say goodbye, for now, with a beautiful but tragic love story.  In his book, Popocatepetl, mitos, ciencia y cultura (un cráter en el tiempo) [Popocatépetl, myths, science and culture (a crater through time)], Carlos Villa Roiz narrates that princess Mixtli, daughter of Mexica emperor Tizoc, took her life believing that Popocatépetl, his lover, died in battle.  Legend goes that every time Popocatépetl remembers his lover, his heart, which keeps the fire of a fervent love, trembles and he throws out smoke with his torch.  Dear reader, this is the true reason why Popocatépetl, the warrior in love whose body turned into a giant volcano, screams, shakes us, and exhales a mixture of ash, gases, steam, and expels the incandescent fragments that flow like blood from his cracks.  These are the moans of a passionate and impossible love.


Scientist and environmentalist  
Twitter: @ovidalp

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