Volcanic Valentine

Many cultures throughout the world associate volcanoes with great legends. Most portray volcanoes as gateways to hell (e.g., Hekla, Iceland), or as the home of gods and goddesses of fire (e.g., Hephaestus in Etna; Pele in Kilauea). In Ecuador, however, volcanic myths are stories of love.

What better place, therefore for a belated valentine blog post than from the flanks of Mama Tungurahua?

Mama Tungurahua is the hottest volcanic lady in Ecuador and has attracted the attention of many suiters, including: Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and the Altar Mountain. Fierce duels fought with ash, rocks and lavas over many years eventually established the dominance of Chimborazo, his prize being the hand of the gorgeous Tungurahua. In time, Taita (“father” in Quechua) Chimborazo and Mama (“mother”) Tungurahua had a son named Guagua (“child”) Pichincha who we got acquainted with last week.

On Valentine’s Day we headed to beautiful Tungurahua. The four of us, joined by Marco, Diego, Freddy and Roberto from Instituto Geofísico, made a fine group of romantics. Armed with flowers and poetry (and state-of-the-art gas detection instruments) we started the two-day ascent, spending a short night on Tungurahua’s flank while electricity filled the air.

In the middle of the night, guided by the light of the full moon, we set out for the summit. But Chimborazo, jealous and fierce, blew his strongest kisses to his precious lady, covering us in an intense blizzard with gale-force wind and horizontal snow. Our headlamps would shine only as far as each other’s backpacks, but after five hours of ascent through the stormy night we finally reached the crater at daybreak. Conceding his defeat, Chimborazo dropped his attacks and the weather cleared to finally reveal Tunguraha’s glaring beauty.

Visibility during the night climb... before the storm...

Visibility during the night climb... before the storm...

Mama Tungurahua - Calm for now...

Mama Tungurahua - Calm for now...

At last we could express our unobstructed love to sweet Tungurahua: “Roses are red, sulphur dioxide is blue, and our volcanologists’ hearts beat only for you”

Disclaimer:  Tungurahua is Ecuador’s most active volcano. Access to the crater by unauthorized personnel is formally prohibited and extremely dangerous.  

Quintessential Quito

Quintessential Quito

The team has been in the lush paradise of Ecuador for less than a week, and are already blown away by the majesty – and challenges - of this low-latitude volcanic candy store.

A warm welcome from colleagues at I.G. and I.R.D. equipped the team with all-important local knowledge and insight into the particular challenges in the region. When planning an expedition with maps and satellite images, everything appears possible to the armchair volcanologist. On the ground is a different story… What appeared to be a field fit for making snow angels turns out to be an unstable glacier riddled with crevasses; what appeared to be a pleasant grove of trees turns out to be a swampy den of man-eating snakes; what appeared to be a gently degassing lava dome turns out to have been blown to pieces in a recent eruption. The team immediately felt charged to take on the new challenges ahead!

Setting up base for a few days in Quito, the colourful capital of Ecuador, the team set in to making preparations, including a kickoff of altitude acclimatization, taking in some local sites, and meeting some wildlife.

From Quito, one doesn’t have to go far to get onto the sharp end of an active volcano. Led by their new friend Marco Almeida - I.G.'s expert in thermal monitoring from I.G. - the team ascended their first active Ecuadorian volcano – Guagua Pichincha!

Guagua Pichincha rises to 4784 m, and is smack beside Quito to the West. Pichincha is very much an active volcano - with frequent signs of unrest, and recent eruptions in 2002 and 1999. Quito was buried in 30 cm of ash from the eruption of 1660. The I.G. keeps a close eye on this sleeping giant, and the team briefly joined this effort with some quadcopter test flights, and thermal imaging of the relatively cool - but always dangerous - lava dome.

The team is just getting started with these outstanding Ecuadorian volcanoes. Stay tuned for more from the TRAIL BY FIRE!

Embers Alight on the Trail By Fire!

The Trail By Fire crew is at it again!

TBF-1.0 to Chile and Southern Peru was a resounding success, but has only stoked “The Fire”. The Nazca Subduction Zone does not end in Peru, and neither does the TRAIL BY FIRE!

The team couldn’t sit idle, knowing that volatile emissions from Ecuador’s spectacular and highly active volcanoes were going unmeasured. So, haven taken what we learned from our first expedition, and having spent 10 months refining techniques on our local volcanoes, the team is heading back to South America to continue our momentous quest! This time, on Tungurahua, Cotopaxi, Reventador, and Guagua Pichincha, the team will face new challenges in the jungle of the equatorial Andes!

Most of the original team is together again – whether in person or in spirit. Nial and Aaron have sadly been lured by the siren songs of Antarctica and Europa; but Yves, Philipson and Ian will be boots-on-the-ground, with Talfan keeping his watch from above, and new member João representing the Sicilian contingent! The fabled 7th member of our team – Sally the Land Rover – has also moved on to greener paddocks; but with generous support from the Instituto Geofísico de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IGEPN) and the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), we will be mobile once again!

All our bags are packed (one of a volcanologist's greatest challenges is fitting the entire chaotic contents of an office into a single piece of checked baggage!) and we’re ready to go. We are equipped once again with DOAS, MultiGAS, UV Cameras, direct sampling tools, and an updated fleet of quadcopters - and we're geared up with kit and clothes from Ocean Optics, Crowcon, and Cactus!

Check in regularly for the all chills, thrills, sulphur burns, and U-turns on the TRAIL BY FIRE!

Charging up Chaitén

Charging up Chaitén

Until 2008, most of Chaitén's residents had no idea they were living in the shadow of an active volcano. On May 2nd, they awoke to an unpleasant surprise: darkened skies and ashfall. Authorities sprung into action and by the end of May 3rd, 4,200 people were evacuated by sea. The eruption intensified over the following days, sending an eruption column 31 km into the sky and a lahar down the valley, laying waste to the town.

Home sweet Villarrica!

Home sweet Villarrica!

Driving to Villarrica felt like coming home. A few years back, several TBF members spent a month here studying the behaviour of its lava lake. Back then we had to face a series of storms and found ourselves working under the snow and having to dig out our instruments from piles of ice every other morning. The lake level was very low, the gas emissions barely above detection limit and the resulting data not amazing.

Minding the Pampean Gap

Minding the Pampean Gap

Volcán Lastarria was a milestone for Trail by Fire because it marked the end of our travels in the Andean Central Volcanic Zone, the belt of active volcanoes that runs through southern Peru and northern Chile. Ahead of us, we had the long drive south across the Pampean Gap to reach our next target volcano. This gap reveals something fundamental about how volcanoes in the Andes work, and why we’re here in the first place, but it requires a bit of explanation…

Liftoff at Lascar

On the Trail by Fire, we couldn't get enough of Lascar. Literally -- we found it a challenge to collect enough volcanic gas. So we innovated and iterated, tackling the volcano time after time with our new tools. In the end, we climbed Lascar four times. In the process, we may have set some world records: longest improvised volcano gas collecting pole, and the highest flight of a quadcopter above sea level.