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Volcano research in Central America

Updated Monday 13th June 2011

As part of the 2011 Earthwatch Lecture series, Hazel Rymer revealed how research into plants might one day predict volcanic activity.

Hazel Rymer and Earthwatch volunteers have been working to unlock the secrets of volcanic activity. On Thursday 12th May, she gave a lecture which explored some of the discoveries she and her team have been making. In this short video, produced by the Earthwatch Institute, she introduces some of the ideas - and explains the value of the volunteers' work.




Professor Hazel Rymer, Open University

What really fascinates me about volcanoes is you can go up to the top of a volcano and look down into this enormous hole that’s been made by nature; people haven’t had anything to do with it.  And whatever we do in terms of trying to monitor volcanoes, trying to understand how they work and all that sort of thing, and trying to, we can mitigate against some of the effects of them, but there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop a volcano erupting.  And I rather like that because it just reminds us how small we are on this planet.

For a long time, we’ve been working in Central America at two volcanoes: Poás and Masaya.  One’s in Costa Rica and one’s in Nicaragua.  We’ve been working there for a long time making gravity measurements, GPS, all sorts of geophysical measurements which tell us about what’s going on underneath the volcano, and what we’ve been doing with Earthwatch is looking at the environmental impact of that volcanic activity.

The measurements that we’ve been making are showing that as the amount of gas coming out of the volcano changes so the impact on the plants changes through time, and what we’re really interested in now, and this is part of an on-going study so I can’t tell you tonight this is the result, this is just where we’re at at the moment, but the point is that there are changes through time in this environmental impact.  And what we want to do is to try to understand how that changes with time and eventually to start to look at changes within the environment and then to make inferences back to the volcano to start saying well last time we saw this sort of environmental impact this sort of thing was going on at the volcano, and we might eventually be able to start to make predictions about larger eruptions and larger changes in activity simply by looking at the impact that’s already happening at the volcano boundaries.

Volcanoes aren’t really the best places to conserve anything.  You know, if a volcano’s going to erupt that’s going to happen, and I’ve got some beautiful pictures that I’ll show you tonight of what we call the kill zone, because, you know, it’s all dead, there is nothing there.  We can start to see, particularly when you get a long way downwind of a volcano and people are trying to cultivate the land and grow their crops, we can start looking at particular types of crops that are more resistant and more to the point crops that will not be affected by some of the heavy metals and so on, the accumulation of heavy metals within the soil, and so we need to be looking at the sorts of crops that would be better planted in these areas.

So what we’re doing is looking at the impact on the natural environment, we’re making measurements on the soils and so on, to see how that varies in comparison with a region, you know, in the same country, but not impacted by the volcano.  And I suppose the other thing is we’re looking to find out whether there actually are any health impacts of somebody, you know, just living in these places, because obviously poor people can’t move just because a volcano becomes more active.

Volcanoes erupt on all sorts of different scales.  Of course we all know about the major impact there was with the Icelandic eruption last year.  That was actually not such a very big eruption, but it had huge environmental and economic impacts.  When there are very much larger explosive eruptions the environmental and economic impact is going to be ever larger.  The problem is that eruptions of that sort don’t happen very often, and the larger the eruption of course luckily the less often they happen, so maybe it’d be every several decades or every hundreds of years or whatever as larger and larger eruptions occur.

So if we study much smaller eruptions and much smaller activity, and a particular type of activity I’m interested in is called persistent volcanic activity, which is a sort of a quiet background degassing, there’s gas coming out of the volcano all the time, but not lavas and that sort of thing very much of the time, the more we can understand about those processes, because they happen much more on human timescales we can see changes there within weeks months and years, we can begin to understand some of those processes that go on deep inside the volcano and then scale them up to the larger volcanic eruptions which are the ones that are going to have the global effects.

Before we used Earthwatch volunteers, there would be just two or three of us and we would have the opportunity to go out for a week or so and make some measurements.  And you can get a dataset, but you certainly don’t get the coverage through time and space.  You can’t cover the area that you can cover once you’ve got volunteers involved, and you also don’t have the long time series.  You have huge gaps in your data if you don’t have some sort of long consistent monitoring programme, which is the sort of thing that Earthwatch allows us to have.  So it’s been well revolutionary actually in the sort of work that I’m trying to do.

The other fascinating thing about Earthwatch volunteers is they are interested in everything and they’ll have a go at everything.  So we’ve brought along a scientist, we’ve brought along geophysicists and botanists and all sorts of different scientists and thrown them all together to try to understand this volcanic system and how it works and how it impacts the environment, and the volunteers come from all sorts of backgrounds, and they get to work with each of these different scientists and to all of us they bring new perspectives and new ideas.  Which to be honest we wouldn’t have had time necessarily to have spoken to colleagues in completely different fields normally, but when you’re out in the field the volunteers can actually provide that bit of extra communication for us in many ways.

Some of the volunteers are Open University students, and they’re actually using this towards their study.  So that’s a very immediate benefit for the volunteers, but many other volunteers are finding that their eyes are being opened to a particular area of science or a particular geographic area or whatever it is.  Many of them come back for more, so they must be getting something out of it.  But I do think that most of them are going back into their normal everyday lives and they’ve been enriched in some way, because they have learned something about a completely different area of the world.



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