Volcanoes' Dangerous Reach
Predicting the path of a serious hazard
Rüdiger Escobar-Wolf is a native of Guatemala who grew up in the shadow of volcanoes. Thus, he says, it was “a natural” that he would end up studying these fiery mountains.
Escobar-Wolf is working on a PhD in Geology, and he made the trek to Tech after he met Professor Bill Rose, who does extensive work in Guatemala. Escobar-Wolf had been working for a Guatemalan government agency that deals with disasters. Now his research involves assessing the risk of active volcanoes that might harm populations.
Guatemala is part of the volatile Pacific “Ring of Fire” that stretches from Alaska to southern Chile. The agitation results from plate tectonics—in this case, the Pacific Cocos Plate moving east and being pushed under the continental Caribbean Plate, causing magma to rise from the depths and form volcanoes at the surface.
“As we speak,” Escobar-Wolf says, “there are three volcanoes erupting in Guatemala.” He is studying one in particular, Fuego: Spanish for “fire.”
There are three major hazardous phenomena that volcanoes discharge: lava flows that ooze out of a volcano slowly; gas and ash that rise and form huge clouds; and the deadly pyroclastic flows—a heavy mixture of dust, gas, and rock that “tumbles down the mountainside like a hot rock avalanche.”
Pyroclastic flows can suddenly reach populated areas, and several towns and villages with about 25,000 people are within the reach of Fuego. As recently as 2003, a pyroclastic flow extended almost five miles. “That was a close call for people of one village,” he says.
Escobar-Wolf’s work is to assess the possibility of such an eruption so people can flee from harm’s way, much the way hurricane warnings function.
He says that Fuego erupts almost constantly. “There’s hot ash and rock on the perimeter of the mountain all the time. We’re worried about when activity intensifies.”
The surface area at the foot of Fuego abounds in volcanic deposits that are hundreds of years old. As part of their investigation, Escobar-Wolf and colleagues study historic deposits, and if they contain charcoal or charred wood, they can date them and reconstruct a history that might inform their inquiry. As well, these scientists measure seismic activity, gas, temperature, gravity, deformation, and noise—all “to infer something about magma rising.”
The idea: try to come up with correlations that might indicate the onset of out-of-the-ordinary volcanic activity and forewarn people of imminent danger.
“You can’t say for sure what will happen,” he says. “Volcanoes are way too complex to do that. So we do a forecast rather than a prediction. We are trying to give a probability, a likelihood.”
The work is not without its dangers, and there have been catastrophes. “We do a good job of not exposing ourselves to danger unnecessarily,” Escobar-Wolf says. “Some people take much larger risks than what I would consider necessary. You don’t have to get that close to get good data.”
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