Research Addresses Volcanic Eruptions: Guatemalan VP Seeks Michigan Tech Input

By Dennis Walikainen | Published

Vice President of Guatemala Dr. Rafael Espada addresses the crowd.
Vice President of Guatemala Dr. Rafael Espada addresses the crowd.

When Rüdiger Escobar-Wolf, a PhD candidate in geological and mining engineering and sciences at Michigan Technological University, traveled to Guatemala under National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsorship, he never imagined he would meet the nation’s vice president—let alone be asked to counsel him and his science advisors. But because of Escobar-Wolf's knowledge of volcanoes and volcano risk management, that's exactly what he found himself doing.  

His recent presentation to the National Disaster Reduction Council and Rafael Espada, the vice president of Guatemala, outlined volcanic risks and the benefits of an early warning system. Escobar-Wolf also remarked on the importance of international cooperation between Michigan Tech and Guatemalan volcanologists.

“This research is aimed at a better understanding of both the volcanic system and the human elements, and, most importantly, it tries to understand the interaction of both during crises,” Escobar-Wolf explains.

He considers meeting the vice president of Guatemala an honor and says that it signifies another step in efforts to help increase the awareness of the hazards the people of Guatemala live with. It also helps bridge the gap between the perspectives of the top levels of government and the grassroots, he adds.

Following this summer’s eruption of Pacaya volcano, which covered much of Guatemala City in a thin sheet of ash, Guatemalan leaders have been concerned with volcano risk management. Vice President Espada expressed his interest in risk management and asked Wolf to present his recommendations.

“This is a great example of what the NSF had envisioned when they created the Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE), a unique funding program to develop international partnerships with researchers and universities,” said John Gierke, professor of geological and environmental engineering and director of PIRE. Michigan Tech received a $2.5 million PIRE grant. 

The Guatemalan experience is evidence that the research is paying off, Gierke adds, since Vice President Espada is also the head of Guatemala's national scientific research agency and consults Escobar-Wolf regularly on hazard monitoring and research.

Another Michigan Tech student, Brianna Hetland, is also in Guatemala, with Michigan Tech's Peace Corps Master’s International program in natural hazards mitigation.

“As a volunteer, I have the unique opportunity to bring special knowledge to the community in which I work and, more importantly, live,” she says “Working closely with various organizations, I have been able to progress towards completing my master’s degree, supported by the University, and impart what I am still learning about volcanic risks to my community.”

“The initiative exemplifies the partnerships that have been developing between the students and faculty involved in our project with foreign universities, the Peace Corps and hazards agencies in Latin American countries prone to natural disasters,” says Gierke. 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.