Very few people realize the impact of volcanoes on the environment, with only the most violent or fatal eruptions making the headlines. The reality is at any given moment many volcanoes around the world showing signs of activity and molten rock and ash are not the only problems they cause. Degassing sends chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, both green house gasses, in to our atmosphere effecting both local environments and potentially climate. The Masaya volcano in Nicaragua is apart of the Central American Volcanic Belt (CAVF) and is persistently degassing releasing tonnes of SiO2 in to the air daily.
In February I will be volunteering as a civilian scientist with the Earthwatch Institute on Masaya. By collecting data and monitoring activity on Masaya the project aims to integrate volcanology and ecology to discover how volcanic gasses affect the environment and its wildlife on a local scale. Also atmospheric data collected can be fed in to global climate change models so we can learn more how volcanoes are influencing climate change.
Such research is not only significant to our understanding on Masaya and other CAVF volcanoes, but also the hundreds on subduction induced volcanics world-wide and how they affect our fragile planet.You can help with this research too by sponsoring myself and this essential project here on this site and also raising awareness of the dynamic planet we live in by clicking the link below
Day 1; Buenos Dias Managua
So the day has finally come, a year after booking I am sat in Heathrow terminal 3, beer in hand, about to embark on my first real volcano adventure. So many things are swirling in my mind; how will I deal with being so far from my son for 12 days, how will I get by on my poor Spanish, what if I hate it, what if I makes me realise I am not cut out to be a volcanologist? Of course that’s just the negatives, another part of me can not sit still, wishing I could just blink and be on Masaya already. The flight from London to Atlanta was lovely. An empty flight meant I could stretch out on two seats to myself, although despite being awake for nearly 20 hours mid-flight I was still too excited to get any shut-eye. A 21 hour stop over meant I could get a few hours sleep at a hotel in College Park and then have the morning to explore downtown Atl. SkyView gave me the perfect opportunity to see the main sights; Centinial Park, Georgia Dome, CNN building etc. And then it was back on MARTA to the airport for a decent lunch before the 3 and a half hour flight to Augusto César Sandino airport, Managua.
My home for the first night was Best Western La Marcedes, directly across the road from the airport meaning I was able to be showered and in bed little over an hour after landing. I had been in contact with several of the other Earthwatch volunteers over the past few weeks via email so we had arranged to meet for breakfast.
To my delight I was joining two fellow OU students from the UK, it was nice to know I was going to be with people from a similar back ground, who knew I am not just being a lesbian when I talk about dykes and cleavage planes! By 2pm we had joined the rest of the group of volunteers and were being picked up by Professor Hazel Rymer, lead scientist on the trip and Dean of Earth and Environmental science at the Open University, and Dr Hilary Erenler.
We got our selves settled in to our home for the week, Hotel Regis in central Masaya, and began the general get to know each other games. Our team leaders introduced themselves and some of the data we would be looking to collect for the week, before we headed out in the van to Lake Masaya and a truly breath-taking view of our mountain at sunset.
Day 2; General Intro to Life in Field.
Monday eased us in to Nicaraguan life softly. Most had travelled in to Nicaragua the day before and the heat was hard to adjust too. After breakfast we headed to El Coyotepe Fort which stands on an extinct cinder cone just a few kilometers from Masaya. From here we were treated to spectacular views of the town and national park as well as Momotombo to the north and Mombacho in the south. We also see the dark side to Nicaragua’s history as the fort was used as a prison through much of the countries turbulent past. It was truly eerie walking through the dark corridors where hundreds were held, tortured and many executed.
We then head up to Masaya national park, stopping first at the visitors centre to get to know the park a bit better and set up our base station GPS. The station gives a reference point for all GPS readings we take around the park each day so therefore needs to be done first and last each day we monitor GPS.
We then ventured to the infamous Santiago crater, luckily the wind was blowing in the opposite direction and we weren’t met with a face full of gases on our first view of the degassing crater.
Day 3; Johns Levelling Challenge.
Dr John Murray, one of the expedition leaders is a volcanologist who spends most of his year running up and down Etna’s flanks and monitoring its behaviour. Although volcanic monitoring techniques are ever developing and improving, John is a testament to the old ways and specialises in a technique called levelling where by a level is held in front of the instrument at a certain distance measuring the forsight, the device is then moved in front of the level to the same distance and the backsight is measured. This process is repeated over and over again mapping the topography of the area being investigated. In terms of volcanological use it can be used to measure deflation, subsidence or magma movement.
Starting at the car park by the Santiago crater our small team measured down the main road back towards the entrance to the park. Some how despite my naturally shakey hands, I was given charge of the level. About 8 ft long I had the joyous job of attempting to hold it perfectly level each time John had to scan, which in the high winds proved extremely difficult and strenuous. Of cause my competitive streak aided me greatly; Johns record for a days work on Etna was levelling 10.6 km in a day. Factoring in the inexperience of our team, physical abilities and 30 + degree heat I threw a random estimate of 2.5 km for todays work.
By 1.30 we are all slowing, the sun over head feels blistering now the wind has died off. We stop for lunch under a tree by the road side before carrying on, my earlier estimates seem impossible untill John tells me we have scaled just over two kilometers. Of course this gives me a second wind and I find my self jogging, level in hand between the backsight and foresight changes. The stunning views also gives me an extra shot of adrenaline, we work along side where the 1772 lava flow breached the rim of the Nindiri crater and spilled down the flanks.
I had also offered to help Kerry, who is doing her PhD on Masaya, by collecting soil samples along the road as we went. So every now and again Ed relieved me of the level and I scrapped of the dry top soil to collect any thing I could get in the arid conditions.
By the time the van collected us at the top of the Coyote trail we had levelled 3.6 km and instead of tired and stiff I wanted to keep going, we were getting data collected we were actually contributing to the understanding of the topography we stood on….
Day 4; Butterflies and Crater Lakes.
After a day of volcanology I opted for a more ecological option for the Wednesday and join Hils team butterfly spotting at Apoyo. Now this is far from my usual comfort zone of rocks and magma, but I can’t lie as I had a atria motive for this trip as it would end with me ticking off some thing from my bucket list.
Apoyo lagoon is a 48 square kilometer fresh water lake in the crater left by an epic explosive eruption of the Apoyo volcano roughly 23,000 years ago; a crater lake. We embarked on an 11 km hike down round the flanks in to the crater, through the nature reserve bursting with all sorts of life. Over the hike we accounted for 39 species of butterfly including 3 which Hilary said were extremely rare in the area. I also continued to get Kerry’s soil samples so she wouldn’t have to cover so much ground when the volunteers went home.
We spotted howler monkeys in a few areas and saw several motmot birds, the national bird of Nicaragua. But after a mornings work we found ourselves on the shores of the lagoon where we were able to cool down in the clear blue waters. After days in the heat and dust, and only slow flowing, cold showers at the hotel, I have never felt cleaning floating in the crystal waters.
A cheeky beer and some lunch by the shores we spent the afternoon on the shore line taking in the breath-taking view and the fact I had just swam in a crater lake, something I have wanted to do since learning of how such majestic lakes could be born from such violent beginnings.
Day 5; Into the Mouth of Hell.
After the calm of yesterday the real volcanologist work was about to take place; delving in to the dormant Nindiri crater to collect GPS and microgravity data. I tried to ease in to the day by helping Guillermo and Kerry measure some new lava tubes he had discovered the previous day. The study of these tubes helps us to see how the magma has migrated around the complex in the past and can give us an idea of how it could do so in the future, not all eruptions may come from the main volcanic vent.
We then climbed the steep, ashy flank and skidded down the other side, climbed boulders and transversed the crater rims, stopping at set points to get readings. Prevailing winds sent the fumes our way several points making conditions harder as gas masks were needed often.
Half of the Nindiri crater has dropped down to form the San Pedro pit crater leaving the other half as a land bridge between the pit crater and active Santiago crater. It was like being on a martian terrain, truly unworldly being within the crater walls, on ground which was once an active lava lake. I got work taking GPS reading while others dealt with microgravity. Kerry took the opportunity to interview myself and some of the other volunteers for future promotion of the trip, while I help film her.
Once the data had been collected it was time to retrace our steps and retake microgravity at each station as we clambered our way out of the volcano. Thinking back on it now its hard to believe I was actually in there. Possibly the most physically challenging part of the trip but at the time it truly didn’t feel like that, I was running on pure adrenaline; this is what a want to do with my life, learn what makes these time bombs tick and how we can protect ourselves and our environment when they do.
As geologists we have come so far in the past two hundred years at understanding the ground beneath our feet and geophysical processes. The cross over looking the craters at Masaya’s highest point is proof of this; gone are the days where women and children were thrown in to the lava like at this point to ‘appease the gods’ and prevent deadly eruptions. We now know much of the mechanics of the Earth and it is not divine acts, but there is still so much we need to learn about these powerful forces of nature.
After an emotionally inspiring day we headed in to Masaya’s town square for dinner and a quick look around the tourist market for some gifts to bring home. The market, although quiet late at night was alive with music. At its centre was a stage surrounded by locals with belly dancers and performers it was a wonderful atmosphere and a lovely insight to Nicaraguan culture.
Day 6; San Pendro Data
Our last day in the field we went round the northern flank, over the 1772 lava flow to the San Pedro crater rim to carry out more GPS and microgravity. The group split with Silvio and Paulo heading off with Guillermo to check for further lava tubes at this side of the crater wall which they thought they could see while we were in the Nindiri crater the day before.
We sat for lunch at just meters from the old lava flow the view breath-taking out over the park. Hard to believe it was nearly all over…..
Kerry was also able to get the FLYSPEC working for the first time that week so using mass spectrometry we were able to get real gas readings and monitor the rate of degassing while we hiked around the crater. Just below the cross we hit levels of SO2 much higher then recommended safety levels which shows the need for closer monitoring in the area. At the moment there is next to none and on a day-to-day basis hundreds of tourist and locals alike visit the craters daily (albeit not the inner areas where we were at times). Although a very short period of exposure should not affect long-term health it is not great at the time especially for people with respiratory issues such as asthma.
Day 7; Goodbye Masaya
The week one volunteers began to depart from the early hours Saturday morning, some who were staying on a second week or staying else where for a few days went of to Granada for the day. I choose to stay back at the hotel and wonder round Masaya for a little longer, trying to cling to the last few moments of civilian scientist life.
Kerry and I headed to the local market, with the hope of a more authentic atmosphere and test her spanish as she would be alone after every one else went home to collect further data for her doctorate. The bustle, the smell, the blood! Lets just say it was an experience and I left feeling glad I had eaten very little meat during my trip!!! I wondered around a little longer in awe at the small town, truly alive and full of colour, although still scared by 2 huge earthquake which rocked it back in 2000.
Every one is so friendly and kids play in the street, it’s as different from what I am used to back in London. People have little and live in constant threat of the volcano by its side and seismicity beneath their feet yet they embrace life like they don’t have a care. It has defiantly been a pleasure staying here.
Day 8; Tourist Time in Managua.
Crater lakes have become a favorite of mine and what better way to end my volcanic adventure then by zip wiring down the banks of one! Tiscapa lagoon is in the heart of the capital Managua. Much smaller than Apoyo it was formed about 10,000 years ago by a similar eruption. The Tiscapa canopy tour allows you a spectacular view of the city while the rush of zooming along a zipline.
After that I headed down to Lake Managua for a spot of lunch before wandering around to the old cathedral and ‘palace of culture.Like Masaya its all so colourful although the locals are not as welcoming.
Day 9; And rest….
Back at Best Western today is the perfect day for reflection, catching up on uni work and general laying round the pool before I embark on 24 hours of travel back to the UK in the morning. It’s hard to believe my time here is almost up. It’s also hard to believe all I have achieved in the past few days I never thought possible from travelling to the other side of the world alone to hiking into an active volcano with £50,000 worth of equipment on my back (microgravity meter)!
I knew this trip would have one of two effects on my in the long run; on one hand I could realise that volcanology is simply not what I really want to do in life, that it is to difficult/risk/uninteresting, or I could be left wanting the whole experience to never end and be even more driven to succeed in my chosen path. It’s safe to say the latter is very much the case and I return to the UK more determined that I will be back. Speaking with Hazel about past and future research on the volcano I have decided to return with Earthwatch next year and base my degree dissertation on data I will be able to collect my self as well as the wealth of literature available from my fellow scientists.
Until next year Masaya………..
To sponsor my dissertation work on Masaya next year please go to the link below and always thank you so much for your support!