As we scrambled up the final pitches of a steep, 1,000 vertical foot cascade of ashen lavarock and sand, Jeff Johnson offered a reward for the first person to spot a “bomb,” one of the many euphemisms field geophysicists employ for volcano ballistics. The reward — beverages, to be hauled up later by another geophysicist — was intended as jocular encouragement to the rugged band of weary volcanologists.

Johnson, a geophysicist, experienced field hand, ultra-athlete, and one of the leaders of this expedition, was also confident he would win.

The playón at the top — nothing like a beach, as its name suggests — is a large, flat boulder field between Volcán Santa Maria, Guatemala’s most mystical volcano, and its son, the smaller but highly active Santiaguito, comprised of four much younger domes.

The hikers slowed, scanning the field for ballistics — not because they were taking the prize seriously but because we were in a kind of reverse mine field, where evidence of newly formed boulders indicated the parabolic sweep of Santiaguito’s recent eruptive tendencies.

I caught up to the group about one football field into the moat-like wasteland that surrounds the base of Santiaguito’s Caliente dome and followed the general gaze down to that first bomb, a toothy lava rock the size of a coconut and the color of Mordor, nestled violently in the sandy ground.

The first bomb spotted on the playón, embedded in the sandy soil adjacent to Caliente dome.

Jeff had spotted it, of course, and had already moved on. The rock, a product of Santiaguito’s young, active lava dome, was cool now, but the disturbed sand around its base looked fresh and raw.

Zach Voss, a filmmaker, and I stood quietly around that first “bomb” as the helmeted scientists we were following moved 100 feet up the playón. We were already exhausted from the hike and impressed with the way the rock was lodged in the volcanic ash. The chance of being pegged by a molten lava rock seemed slim — we had already observed relatively small eruptions here for about 24 hours. Johnson and others in our party determined that the mountain was not launching rock onto the playón, as it had a few weeks prior — and would again a few weeks hence — and decided to climb to this closer vantage for a short period of time.

Other experienced volcanologists in the canyon with us were not as sure, and had stayed below, setting up experiments at a safer distance. By our calculations, climbing 1,000 feet closer to this laboratory volcano was a rational risk, the kind backcountry skiers might take after digging a solid snow pit or climbers might attempt on a near summit as stormclouds rolled in.

Voss took out his camera and did an impromptu interview with the closest volcanologist, Nick Varley, an indefatigable Brit who teaches at a university in western Mexico at the base of Colima volcano. Nick explained how the volcano’s magma chamber pressurizes and launches solid rock of varied size and stature.

“So the surface breaks and parts of the surface, if it’s broken up very fine, can produce ash and if it’s not broken up so fine, it’s blocks of material,” Varley said. “And you can find them when you’ve got sand, like we’ve got here, because they produce a crater.”

Video 1: What Goes Up ...

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

Varley’s home volcano, Colima, can produce bombs the size of small cars and he and his students measure the energy of the volcano based on the mass of these rocks and their distance from the cone.

There were other more immediate threats there on the playón as well. As we stood, the constant, crushing din of rockfall down a canyon off of Santa Maria kept us glancing over our left shoulders. Also, we were running out of water and the sun was preparing to set.

After Voss and I relaxed a bit, we joined Johnson, who teaches at Boise State University, and his grad student, Jake Anderson, as they buried a tiltmeter in a surprisingly tranquil cove, across the boulder field, at the base of the active dome. Though significantly closer to the volcano, the tilt site — which would measure minute changes in the slant of the earth around the volcano — seemed out of the line of fire, as evidenced by more mature vegetation and some lovely moss surrounding it.

We watched them rewire and install the highly-sensitive equipment — it has to start out perfectly level to capture accurate readings — and then headed back down with the rest of the group, arriving in camp as darkness enveloped the desolate canyon.

Velvet Goldmine, naked on your chain / I'll be your king volcano right for you again and again. —Bowie (1947-2016)

This surprisingly tough bunch of geophysicists was part of the advance team for the inaugural Workshop on Volcanoes, held in January in Guatemala, a gathering of volcanologists and their toys — including sensors and rugged mini-computers running off car batteries, advanced photographic and video equipment and drones. We had spent the morning on top of another of Santiaguito’s volcanic domes, Brujo, watching the recently active dome, Caliente, erupt half a dozen times. All around us, volcanologists and graduate students from Boise, Liverpool, the Smithsonian, Mexico, the Carnegie Institution, Arizona State and University of Alaska gathered low frequency sound samples, bits of ash falling from the sky on our heads, drone footage, rock permeability data, precision photos and digital samples of vibrations in the earth. More scientists would arrive a few days later with even more technology and ideas.

Caliente eruption, as viewed from Brujo, a currently dormant dome of Santiaguito.

The scientists who descended on the western Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango, affectionately called Xela, after its indigenous name, were bonded by the usefulness of Santiaguito: it’s a reliable, young volcano with several safe vantage points for observation and instrumentation in a country teeming with social issues that leave few resources for volcano monitoring.

“When I was a young faculty member, I could come here and I could rent a Volkswagen, if I didn’t work with the government, and with the Volkswagen I could drive to the volcano,” said Bill Rose, a retired Michigan Tech volcanologist who has been to Guatemala maybe 100 times since 1965. “I’d then have a few hours walk to get to the crater where I could  observe real activity… You can get up high and look right down the gazoo and into the way the volcano works. What a rare opportunity.”

During the two weeks in January that we were in Guatemala, the national volcanology monitoring agency issued alerts on Fuego Volcano, about 100 kilometers from Santiaguito, citing constant locomotive-like roars and ash plumes reaching almost 23,000 feet. Three weeks later the ash from Fuego shut down the airport in Guatemala City.

A month after we left, Santiaguito’s rumbles intensified and volcano monitors found fresh bombs around two of our observation spots.

“We call it a laboratory volcano because it’s reliably active. You climb Santa Maria and you wait for a few hours and you’ll observe all manner of volcanic activity,” Johnson said. “That includes explosions, lava flows, rock falls, pyroclastic flows, occasionally. So it presents this opportunity to attack the volcano scientifically from every angle possible and collect disparate data that scientists use together to better understand these systems.”

The Guatemalan Situation Volcanoes pose a national risk, but are not a national priority

Michigan Tech volcanologist Rüdiger Escobar-Wolf, who was born in Xela, applies a Spanish idiom to the study of volcanic eruptions: No es cosecha de mangos. Volcanoes remain unpredictable, unlike the consistent and pleasant harvest of mangoes.

Tropical storms threaten Central America every few years — everyone still recalls Hurricane Mitch, which killed at least 268 Guatemalans in 1998. Earthquakes occur about once a century. In 1976, a 7.5 magnitude quake in Guatemala killed 23,000 people and damaged over $1 billion in property. But highly destructive volcanic eruptions are more rare, Escobar-Wolf explained, occurring perhaps every few centuries, and thus not at the top of most personal or political agendas.

Santa Maria, 1902 eruption
Santa Maria, 1902 eruption.

Santa Maria, which rises to the south of Xela, in view of the decaying ionic columns in the city’s historic Central America Park (pictured above), formed its strata cone about 100,000 years ago, spilling layers of ash and lava along its steep slopes for some 75,000 years, rising to an elevation of 12,375 feet in a classic volcanic cone. About 25,000 years ago, Santa Maria’s growth appears to have slowed, according to the geological record. But in October 1902, Santa Maria erupted — possibly the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, according to Escobar-Wolf, and the entire southwest slope of the mountain collapsed into the caldera below. Santa Maria dumped a huge amount of volcanic material across southwestern Guatemala and into southern Mexico and killed some 8 to 10,000 people.

In 1922, a new volcanic complex began to form on top of Santa Maria’s collapsed southern flank. It became Santiaguito, Santa Maria’s son, and in less than a century, the hot magma just beneath the earth’s surface birthed four new domes — Caliente, Monje, Mitad and Brujo — to form the laboratory volcano, some 4,000 feet below the original summit. (In 1929, a large pyroclastic flow streamed over Caliente’s south wall, which had just collapsed, killing thousands more.)

Today, the Guatemalan people face risks from three recently active volcanoes: Santiaguito in the west, and Fuego and Pacaya, near the historic and highly touristed city of Antigua and just south of the capital city. But the agency tasked with volcano monitoring, INSIVUMEH, has a small staff and dire equipment needs. At INSIVUMEH’s Guatemala City campus, near the airport, giant rolls of helicorder paper, intended to register seismic fluctuations, sit dormant and a bank of more modern computers sees only occasional use. Monitoring equipment along Santiaguito’s southern flank, including a live web cam, has been broken down for many months.

Video 2: Growing Up Below Santa Maria

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

“Really, it’s pretty bad. We are a government institution that does not have resources to buy equipment,” said Gustavo Chigna, director of volcanology for INSIVUMEH, the Guatemalan National Institute for natural disasters. “For example, in volcanology, 95 percent of the equipment is donations. Ninety-five percent… from USGS [U.S. Geological Survey], the University of Bristol and a foundation that people can support, the IVM [International Volcano Monitoring] Fund… many people who like the volcanoes help us. That’s how we have equipped the observatories with computers, with monitoring and measurement equipment, pyrometers, tiltmeters, PH-meters, it’s from the IVM Fund. Also video and photo cameras.”

With a per capita gross national income of $3,430 (US, 2014), more than half the population living below the national poverty threshold and a palpable trauma left over from Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which formally ended only in 1996, volcano monitoring is not a national priority.

“The biggest problem at INSIVUMEH is politics,” Chigna said. “The politicians are not interested in volcanoes. I remember there was a president of Guatemala who came to INSIVUMEH and I asked him why he couldn’t buy us seismic stations, for example. And he said no, because the people do not see seismic stations and he’d rather build a road, for example, that the people would see.”

Or a health clinic or a school. It comes down to cold, hard risk calculation, as Escobar-Wolf suggested. Most at risk are rural areas, which in many parts of the country remain embedded in a late-19th Century plantation economy. This  includes the coffee farms south of Santiaguito, one of which serves as an exclusive purveyor to Starbucks. But threats to the fincas and to tourism, including at a new luxury hotel and golf course on the flanks of Pacaya which has been evacuated several times since opening, are driving interest and concern for volcano monitoring. New homes continue to push the geological limits, cropping up closer and closer to the volcanoes.

Video 3: Life in Guatemala

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

“The problem is that there is not a law to prohibit the construction of more houses, so all the time, the population is increasing,” Chigna said. “I think it would be better if the volcanoes were national parks to avoid having people live inside the park area.”

In fact, Pacaya is a park, and INSIVUMEH accurately forecast a large eruption there in 2010, 13 days in advance. Chigna said that no one in Guatemala believed them and that tourism and government interests opposed closing the park. But when the volcano erupted, many people gained a renewed faith in Chigna’s agency, and tour guides started sending information about changes in eruption patterns into his office.


Eddy Sanchez
INSIVUMEH Director Eddy Sanchez with scientists from the Workshops on Volcanoes.

“So, unfortunately, in order to get real support for volcanology in Guatemala, we need to see what we’ve seen in other places in the world, that people die,” Chigna said. “And it’s a dear price that we do not want to see, but in order for the politicians to be interested in volcanology, that’s unfortunately what they will wait for.”

People frequently get lost or injured in the volcano zones. When we visited headquarters before heading out into the field, Chigna’s boss, INSIVUMEH chief Eddy Sanchez, passed around photos of tourists doing stupid things at Guatemalan volcanoes, recounting the story of a Swiss student who was hit by a rock. He told us to be careful.

Guatemala’s volcanoes have also killed people in recent history as well.

When Escobar-Wolf was young, he recalls large eruptions in the 1980s depositing ash on top of Xela. In July 1990, when he was 12, a large explosion caught the attention of a group of family friends involved in the Club de Andenismo, a mountain climbing club. A week after the eruption, the party of four hiked toward Santiaguito from the coffee farms to check out the damage and the new lay of the land. As they approached the lava flows, a second catastrophic eruption killed Mario Soza, Sudi Escobar, Rafael Recinos and Padre Edgar Valenzuela.

“It made a pretty large impression on me and obviously it was a very traumatic event for other people in the city,” Escobar-Wolf said. “That helped shape my view about volcanoes.”

The Smithsonian Connection The many ways to measure change in the landscape

The Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution is well known for the 12-ton African elephant in the lobby, the Hope Diamond and detailed Neanderthal dioramas. Also, they have an IMAX.

But deep in the museum’s recesses, scientists work on all kinds of natural phenomenon, including volcanoes. Ben Andrews is a Portland, Oregon native, a volcanologist for the Smithsonian who exudes absolute expertise and, at the same time, a laid back, West Coast demeanor. His field hard hat is embellished with black electrical tape reading “BOSS.” Andrews is acting curator of rocks and ores for the museum and also affiliated with the Global Volcanism Program — tagline: 10,000 years of volcanic activity at your fingertips. It’s a long-term attempt to catalogue every volcanic eruption on the planet.

“The best guide to what a volcano will likely do in the future is usually what it’s done in the past, Andrews said. “If you have another volcano like Santa Maria that’s been continuously effusing this lava dome, more or less continuously, since 1922, that’s a good indication that it will probably keep going, at least for the foreseeable future.”

The Smithsonian has been cataloguing volcanoes since the 1920s and gained notoriety in the 1940s when William F. Foshag, one of Andrews’ predecessors as head curator of geology, worked as a principal scientist on Parícutin, a volcano that suddenly rose up out of a Michoacán, Mexico cornfield. Andrews says a thorough catalogue of global volcanism is important for many reasons, including the fact that there are several volcanoes named, for example, Cerro Negro or Santa Maria, and researchers, policy makers and public safety folks need to quickly identify which one might be erupting at any given moment.

The Smithsonian dataset also tracks the numbers of people potentially living in the path of volcanoes: Since 1900, more than 96 volcanoes have produced lava domes like Santiaguito’s. Some 1.9 million people around the world live within 10 km of those lava domes and 30 million live within 30 km, according to Andrews. The Santa Maria page at the GVP (volcano number 342030) lists 119,462 people within 10 km of the volcano, and 1.3 million within 30 km.

Andrews’ research is focused on detecting minute changes over short time spans in the composition and movement of the lava dome. Andrews was one of the key organizers of the Workshops on Volcanoes. He and Stephanie Grocke, a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian, brought a set of hacked digital SLRs to Guatemala to record what they call ground-based, time-lapse photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is an old technique which developed alongside photography and flight, starting in the mid-19th Century. It produces land elevation models, including topographic maps, and more recently, detailed, high resolution digital models. In general, photogrammetry works on the same principle as human sight, combining slightly divergent views into realistic images of a 3D world.

Andrews and Grocke set up three digital SLR cameras hacked with external battery boosters and radio controlled shutters, designed in a lab at the Smithsonian. The radios, connected to a digital timer, coordinate images of the dome every few seconds from different angles. Using trigonometry, and a Matlab program that Andrews wrote, the thousands of photos provide data in three dimensions, tracking movement of individual points on the dome, before, during and after eruptions. The images provide high resolution views of the surface over time, allowing for detailed point clouds — models that indicate movement of individual pixels — and other surface measurements. According to Grocke, these measurements, including, for example, changes in steepness along the slope, may help with eruption forecasting.

“This volcano is a great example of a dynamic landscape that’s changing the surface of the earth, that has implications for other planets, for what we see on Mars, for example,” Grocke said.

Video 4: Smithsonian in Guatemala

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

Other pioneering research at Santiaguito employed drones to gather similar data. But even before the digital elevation models are built, drones provide stunning and valuable video footage of the active volcano.

Felix W. von Aulock, a post-doctoral student at the University of Liverpool’s rapidly growing volcanology program, called drones, “the perfect scientific toy,” adding that employing unmanned aerial vehicles in the name of science is a step above their more common use: rich people filming their kids in the park.

On the first full day in the field, after one minor crash landing, von Aulock’s quadcopter hovered over Caliente, at the extreme of its range, about a kilometer out, and quickly running out of juice. A dozen scientists were splayed out over the rocks working quietly on their own equipment — range finding, gathering ash and rock samples, setting up infrasound mics. As von Aulock focused on his controls, the viewfinder revealed a sudden surge of gas and ash accelerating up from the crater bottom. He called out the eruption to the group, moments before it burst into the sky. His hands shook as he retreated, eager to get the device — mostly the camera’s memory card — home across the rocky landscape before his battery ran out.

You can see the explosion von Aulock captured at 26 seconds in the video below, including the effect the hot gasses had on the drone’s flight.

Video 5: A Short Santiaguito Documentary

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

von Aulock and Brett Carr, a graduate student at Arizona State University, use a technique called “structure from motion” to build digital elevation maps. SfM captures optical depth from repeated images at different vantages— in many cases, time lapse photography shot from drones. While they may capture many more images from more angles than Andrews and Grocke, the images may be slightly different, as they are shot over time.

While von Aulock flew right over the dome, Carr used his quadcopter, also equipped with a GoPro camera, to circumnavigate the dome from multiple angles and flight paths. A few days later, from the summit of Santa Maria, he hiked back and forth along the cliffs to capture images of the dome with a still camera, which also provides data for his DEM.

Video 6: Structure from Motion Demo

Demo of ground-based photogrammetry and structure from motion, produced by Brett B. Carr of Arizona State University.

While many people think of geologic time in terms of millenia, volcanologists can observe major changes in the earth’s surface in relatively short time spans. In less than a century, a slice of Santa Maria collapsed thousands of feet into the caldera below and four new volcanic domes rose from the rubble, each, now a significant climb in its own regard. And the periods of active growth on those domes have been measured in months and years, not decades.

Digital models of the earth’s surface — whether from ground or air based photogrammetry, satellite imagery from LIDAR and INSAR radar, or precise GPS measurements from fixed points over time —  can record even more minute changes around volcanoes, down to fractions of a second before, during and after eruptions.

But visual cues are not the only data points issuing forth from Santiaguito.

Sound Waves, High and Low Sensing seismic and infrasound waves at Santiaguito

Whether you see or hear a volcano first depends on where you are standing. From our camp below the domes, we often heard a low rumble or single bang and then looked up through the trees to observe seemingly random ash formations floating in slow motion over the canyon, forming dark shapes in the imagination — lions and scythes where regular cumulus clouds might suggest sheep or puppy dogs. A few minutes following an explosion, we’d hear tinkling bits of ash dropping to the ground, littering hair and clothes and depositing a gritty film on bowls of beans, tarps, large, tropical leaves and eventually on teeth, inside shirts, amidst the pages of books. From the narrow canyons, one might hear a boom, but not be sure for a few minutes, until the sky above darkens.

I only heard rumbles and bangs while in Guatemala, but INSIVUMEH frequently likens eruption sounds to locomotives and audiophiles on the web recall everything from jet engines to hissing steam engines to a pregnant mother’s heartbeat. From above the domes, at Santa Maria’s southern lookout, the material — those slow moving, darkly beautiful clouds — blasting out of Caliente often registers before any sound.

Volcanoes make a diversity of inaudible sounds and vibrations as well, one of their most-studied phenomenon and most useful precursors. As material moves inside a volcano — magma, gases, rock tumbling in fluids — and fights its way through solid rock, stuff vibrates, as Diana C. Roman, a researcher in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington explained.

Roman came to volcanology by way of economics — she prefered being dropped from helicopters on frigid, uninhabited islands, armed for bear to working at a bank. Roman, with the aid of porters, hauled two broadband seismometer stations, Trillium compact PH 120s, both powered by truck batteries — which weigh about 40 dense, unyielding lbs. each — down the Canaleta into the domes to gather seismic waveform data on Santiaguito. Roman installed one station in a deep hole at the base of Brujo and the other 400 meters across the rift, closer to the trail. A small data recorder on each station captures waveforms registering at the station and Roman’s Mac, running open source applications like Centaur, a logging package, Octave, a Matlab clone and the USGS Swarm tool can download, analyze, filter and compare the waveforms.

As we jumped around the borehole, the small vibrations we created registered as peaks on the seismograph readout on Roman’s field laptop. Roman — who works mostly on volcanoes Momotombo and Telica in Nicaragua these days, but has also worked in Mexico, Ethiopia and the Aleutian Arc —  looks at seismic data because it is widely collected and has well understood patterns for anticipating eruptions, or at least for noting changes inside volcanoes which might indicate pending eruptions.

Momotombo, on the northwest shore of Lake Managua, recently began erupting again after more than a century mostly at rest, with large explosions on the first week of December, 2015. For about a decade, scientists had noted increased seismic activity around Momotombo, and following the Dec. 4 eruption, Roman had noted continued instability, possibly indicating that the violent Strombolian cone — characterized by short, intense, frequent bursts — was still clogging or settling.

Sure enough, as we sat in the lobby of Hotel Modelo on Jan. 3, about a month later, Roman pulled up webcam images of the latest eruptions at Momotombo. Eruptions continued into April.

Sound waveforms indicating intense rockfall at Santiaguito.

Carnegie has funded edgy science since 1912 — fields like genetics, planetary science, matter at extreme states and volcanology, expensive research in remote places with potentially valuable payoffs. A chief advantage for Carnegie scientists is that they do not have to seek external funding as most university researchers do; Carnegie funds research internally, without regard to fluctuations in scientific trends or foundational or governmental interest.

Seismology is perhaps the most common form of volcano monitoring — INSIVUMEH looks at its own seismometers to forecast coming eruptions and often publishes seismic data from Guatemalan volcanoes on the web. And seismometers, which work best in stable, deep pits, are a good, long-term monitoring technology. But vibrations in the ground are not the only wave-based remote sensing technique useful at volcanoes. Johnson and several other volcano researchers are giving more attention to infrasound, sound waves that travel thousands of miles through the air but are too low frequency, less than 20 hz, to be audible.

Last year, while living in Chile with his family, as a Fulbright Scholar, Johnson and his Boise State geophysics students put a network of infrasound sensors around Villarica for general monitoring and research on infrasound itself. But after the volcano suddenly erupted on March 3, 2015, his equipment picked up significant infrasonic signals tied to the lahar flow that followed the eruption, with great promise for early warning systems in the future.

As we hiked into the domes at the start of the Santiaguito workshops, Alex Iezzi, a graduate student from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, left the trail to find a secluded spot, in line of sight of Caliente (though it was shrouded in fog at the time), to deploy her first infrasonic station. A few days prior, airport security in Mexico City had confiscated Iezzi’s expensive, wet-cell batteries, despite them being labeled as scientific equipment. She had inadvertently tossed the note in Spanish they left in her bag. But this is how field research often goes, so Iezzi got on the phone with her advisor and rigged together eight D-cell batteries to provide enough power for her small digitizer, which records the infrasound waves and needed to last at least a few days.

Crouched under a low tree, 15 yards off the trail down Santa Maria and into the domes, Iezzi loaded a microphone and digital recorder into a generic tupperware container, but the digitizer failed to boot. Iezzi calmly untaped the battery array she had built and rewired it inline, rather than in series, to provide more voltage. It worked, and after a small delay, the GPS on the digitizer locked in, so that she could later sync the times on the data.

Iezzi left her infrasonic kit hidden in the brush and we continued down the slick, steep trail, rejoining the group just as night fell. The final section of the trail, a narrow bed of hardened, wet lava rock, required steady feet and occasional sliding on butts. Two-thirds of the way down, the porters passed us on their way back up, urging us to keep moving before it got dark.

Video 7: The 'Sounds' of Volcanoes

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

While seismic sensors need to be placed relatively close to active volcanoes, infrasound can travel thousands of miles and can thus be deployed at further distances. Santiaguito, the laboratory volcano, is a good place for scientists to compare seismic and sound data and one of the studies that may result from the workshop involves syncing up all of the waveforms and other measures to compare and contrast the signals.

Waveform data also provides clues about what is happening underground and can be used to map magma chambers and fractures around volcanoes. In the old days, Roman suggested, volcanology was a post-mortem science: geologists could hike in after an eruption, collect rocks and make observations. But now, geophysicists use mathematical models and sensitive equipment to better understand the way volcanoes breathe, talk and effuse.

Below the volcanoes Lava flows, lahars threaten your morning coffee

The four climbers who died at Santiaguito in 1990 are memorialized by a plaque at the gate into El Faro coffee plantation, a Starbucks supplier. We stopped at the gate to negotiate passage through El Faro in a cart pulled by a large tractor on the way up toward the Santiaguito lava flow and lahar channel. We were guests at Patzulin, a sprawling coffee and macadamia farm located along the chaotic lower folds of Santiaguito, near El Faro, at the head of a fertile delta flowing down to the Pacific, 50 miles south. One of the farm’s owners had attended a day of lectures at the Workshop seeking advice for stemming the tide of a 200-foot-thick wall of lava so viscous that it resembles a drystone wall wending across the English countryside except that it is poised to consume vast swaths of his orchards.

Memorial to the four slain mountain hikers in El Faro.

That morning we had left Hotel Modelo in Xela early, circumnavigating Santa Maria to the east in two vans, through the towns of Almolonga and Zunil, where numerous “baños medicinales” — natural hot springs — grace the main road. We stopped for a snack at Market San Martin near La Estancia de la Cruz. As the volcanologists bought sodas and candy bars, Santiaguito blew, piercing clear blue skies with a large, black cloud of ash. Someone shouted, “eruption” and volcanologists scurried out of the gas station, scrambling for cameras and spreading bags on the parking lot to collect the ash that tinkled down on our heads. Someone broke a bottle in the excitement. Gas station attendants looked on, shaking their heads at the scene.

It was one of the largest explosions we had seen so far. Groups on top of Santa Maria and in the canyon below Santiaguito would capture valuable data on this eruption, proving the worth of this active research workshop. Our group loaded back into two vans and continued up the southern reach of the volcano, through Palmar, the closest village and past a security checkpoint up to the fincas, for miles along an intricate cobblestoned path, to Patzulin.

It’s difficult to capture the drama of this landscape in mere words. From the farm, our tractor conveyance chugged its way up the mountain switchbacks in low gear, rolling over an ancient feeling cobblestone path hemmed in by coffee and nut trees. It was a Sunday and workers seemed to be off, but some children played in the deep shade of the trees.

The tractor parked and we walked up a steep hill to what should have been Cabello Angel, once a lovely, crossable river channel through the California Section of this 680 acre plantation. But instead, a deep gash in the earth appeared before us, the vegetation on either side torn and burned. To the casual observer, this seemed a permanent feature of the landscape, perhaps millennia old. But Valdamar Martinez, who has lived on Patzulin for 20 years and manages the farm, said that this slice in the earth was only a year or two old, a result of several of the known volcanic hazards.

Bombs and rockfall are nearby hazards. Pyroclastic Density Currents, often referred to as pyroclastic flows, move fast, far and hot out of a volcano, carting loose rock and boulders in a solution of hot gas wherever they damn well please, including uphill, until they peter out of their own accord. They move fast, as in 50 to 100 meters (160-320 feet) per second. And they travel far; we were 4 or 5 km from the playón and seemed to be only in the middle section of the flow. And PDCs are hot: up to 900° C (1652° F).

Julio Cornejo Alvarado, a volcano monitor for INSIVUMEH who covers the fincas, was on his way up to the Cabello Angel around 8:30 am on May 9, 2014, just starting a shift, when a large eruption sent waves of PDCs down the channel. As the entire area was evacuated, Cornejo turned off his radio, jumped into the canyon and started filming, capturing the phenomenal footage below.

Video 8: Flujo Piroclástico


“At first it was all normal, we are used to the activity of Santiaguito. We have seen strong explosions, also strong pyroclastic flows. We have seen lava flows,” Cornejo said. “The dynamics completely changed when the flow descended five kilometers below the active mouth. So we considered the activity abnormal and it was going to be a special event.”

Cornejo remained in the drainage, alone with his video camera.

“By the time the flow front was less than a half a kilometer away… I thought first of my family. I am a father and my kids are still small. But my curiosity got the best of me because I was seeing something unique in that moment,” Cornejo explained. “In more than 15 years of working, I had not seen anything like it and it was an opportunity. After that, I began to consider how much capacity for concentration and agility I had.”

He evaluated the dynamics of the flow, looked for escape routes. Everything seemed to be in his favor and so as the flow grew closer, he climbed up to the bank and continued to film, holding the camera low, but aiming at the flow front.

“In many cases, I think there are jobs that we do, as observers, in two or three days that are worth a year’s salary,” he said. Cornejo could not watch the dramatic footage he captured.

Video 9: Access to the Domes and Summit

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

But Santiaguito was not done. PDCs are often followed by lahars, violent mud flows which can be triggered by the activity of lava and hot gas along the ground, or precipitation following lava flows. Lahars repeatedly washed through the newly formed trench, digging it deeper and scraping smooth the lavarock along its base, exposing layers of ash and soil — the gathered volcanologists debated the age and provenance of the deposits along the embankment — and taking out a bridge and anything else in its path.

The owners of Patzulin are considering digging out a new channel to redirect the lava flow away from their orchards. Volcano research is a mix of practical and esoteric questions. How can the coffee farms and human settlements at Santiaguito’s skirts coexist with the volcano? How do gas pockets drive migrations of magma in the chamber?

Both types of questions remain unanswered.

Really Knowing a Volcano Retired volcanologist Bill Rose on working in Central America

It took Bill Rose nearly an entire career climbing Guatemalan volcanoes before he began to pay attention to Guatemala.

Rose first came to Guatemala in 1965, a graduate student at Dartmouth trying to stay out of Vietnam and figure out what kind of work he wanted to do. Dick Stoiber, a long-serving geologist at Dartmouth who died in 2001, sent Rose to collect hot gas samples from volcanoes in Central America. His first assignment was to climb eight volcanoes a month for a year.

Stoiber, who was trained as an “economic geologist,” wanted to study how hot gas interacted with precious metals like gold and molybdenum, and so Rose, at the time largely unaware of the gold-driven Spanish conquest of Latin America centuries prior, and ignorant of the more recent U.S. role in destabilizing Guatemala, became an unwitting treasure hunter, under the auspices of his Ivy League institution. He rode in U.S. Army surplus vehicles, helping the Guatemalans — and the U.S. Army — map rural Guatemala. And he climbed up to gas vents and into active volcanic craters without concern for his own safety or that of the students and guides who accompanied him.

“It was incredibly exhilarating. It was also stupid. It was dangerous… I didn’t know about the danger then. We learned about danger from the experience of others. We got lucky,” Rose said.

Video 10: An Eruptive Career

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media, with historical images from the Richard E. Stoiber Papers at Dartmouth.

They did find some precious metals, but they also collected a lot of data and published a lot of papers. Google Scholar is rich with Rose, et al., citations from Guatemala.

It was not until the 1980s and 1990s, when Rose picked up I, Rigoberta Menchú, the biography of an indigenous woman growing up in the plantation economy, during Guatemala’s Civil War and The Long Night of the White Chickens, a political murder mystery in 1980s Guatemala City, that he started to think about the social fabric of the country in which he’d been working.

I am like a drop of water on a rock. After drip, drip, dripping in the same place, I begin to leave a mark, and I leave my mark in many people's hearts. Rigoberta Menchu

“When you come as a foreigner into an environment and are not listening,” Rose said, “how can you sort things out, especially if you are in a hurry to publish that esoteric publication that’s going to get you to full professor?”

In his years climbing volcanoes, Rose had not taken the time for what he calls synthesis, high-level learning, understanding the conditions in which he was doing his work. He had ignored his indigenous guides, for example, building a grass research hut in a flood zone under rockfall before the rainy season.

Rose recalls his worst day in Guatemala, in the early ’80s in an indigenous village near Antigua. It was the end of the day and he watched a big truck with soldiers picking up children, 11 to 14 year old kids. Rose watched as mothers cried, employing every means possible to save their children from becoming child soldiers.

Rose went on to establish the interdisciplinary Peace Corps Master’s International program in Natural Hazards Mitigation/Geology at Michigan Tech, which places graduate students near natural hazard sites in the developing world where they apply their scientific knowledge in monitoring and mitigation.

“They understand hazards from a holistic point of view,” Rose said of his Peace Corps students, several of whom attended the Workshop. The holistic point of view means that individuals are more focused on getting food on the table and not getting sick than planning for the next pyroclastic flow or lahar.

“You can‘t expect people to focus on something that isn’t their worst problem,” Rose said.

The Peace Corps is a social organization, Rose said, which teaches volunteers to listen to people, and deemphasizes resume building.

“We need to do much better about communicating with people,” he said.

After the Civil War ended, formally in 1996, a national hazard/risk reduction agency, CONRED,  opened up shop. A young engineer from Xela named Rudy Escobar-Wolf, whose mother loved hiking on volcanoes, worked at the nascent federal agency and he reached out to Rose for advice on mapping volcano hazards, and asked to go along on an expedition. The two struck up a friendship and Rose recruited Escobar-Wolf to Michigan Tech in 2005 for a Master’s and then PhD in volcanology.

Earlier this year, at the Workshops on Volcanoes in Xela, Rose, Johnson, Yan Lavallée of Liverpool, and other international scientists joined students and faculty from San Carlos University at the Xela campus in a public forum that Escobar-Wolf organized. The scientists presented slides about their research, all of them addressing the full auditorium in Spanish and taking questions from the audience.

Video 11: Workshop Retrospective

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media

Many of the Guatemalan students are studying engineering as there is no volcanology, let alone geophysics program in Guatemala. But they had questions and insights about seismic risks, about the history of the volcano and about hazards. And several of the Guatemalan students who joined the Workshop, including in the field, has special knowledge of the local geology and had read all the Santiaguito papers.

Local fixer Armando Pineda and Mayan guides from Llanos de Pinal, a village at the base of Santa Maria, were instrumental in the success of the research expedition. And one of the plans that came out of the Workshop is to seek funding for a permanent research station at the summit, with long-term, real-time data shared among all the researchers and with INSIVUMEH.

Pineda, a climber, caver and professional guide who coordinates logistics, security and data collection for many of the volcanologists studying in Guatemala, stood at the summit of Santa Maria, which he’s climbed more than 40 times, and reflected on the recent uptick in activity at Santiaguito, visible hundreds of feet below.

“The landscape that you can see from the summit doesn’t compare with anything below,” Pineda said in Spanish. “The feeling you get up here, the companionship with all the people up here, that’s what I like… supporting the universities in their volcanological work on active volcanoes here in Guatemala. New projects are coming here in Santa Maria and Santiaguito; we are waiting for approval of the projects in the United States and Liverpool. We will have work here for a long time…”

Video 12: Workshop in 360 Video

Zach Voss / Retroscope Media, produced in partnership with the Boise Virtual Reality Project. Best viewed on mobile device and or with VR headset. (On desktop, pan with cursor keys or controls in upper left of screen.)