Put a Candle in the Window

Is this the end of the road for the TRAIL BY FIRE?

As the team prepares to leave Ecuador, we have a moment to reflect upon the freeways and road blocks we’ve encountered while traveling more than 20,000 km and visiting more than 20 volcanoes of the Nazca subduction zone.

The Ecuadorian Impasse

It has been said that “success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.” Well, it’s never been quite as bad as that on the TRAIL, but there have been some challenges.

Take for example, the beautiful and talented Tungurahua. She has a long history of eruptions, and had been in a nearly constant state of activity from 1999 to 2016. During this period, ash columns 5-6 km high, pyroclastic flows, and Strombolian bursts were common, and were accompanied by intense long period and volcano tectonic seismicity, and a 2016 average SO2 discharge of 383 tons/day (maximum of 6012 tons/day). Did the mighty Tungurahua suddenly become bashful when the TRAIL BY FIRE approached? Did the snowy kisses blown from Chimborazo satiate her fiery desire? Or did 17 years of nearly constant activity leave her in need of some rest and relaxation?

Whatever the reasons for Tungurahua’s quiescence during our visit, it was nearly total. The seismic drums at the I.G. observatory had practically flat-lined. Our spectroscopic tools (U.V. camera and DOAS) did not register any SO2 in the plume, and when we made the snowy summit and peered into her cataclysmic crater, none of the thermal anomalies were hotter that 40 ℃, and there was nary a measurable plume to be found.

Our fearless leader, Yvo, counts our work at Tungurahua to be a “failure", because it leaves red in his volcanic ledger. He cannot place a green check mark in the “flux” and “composition” boxes of his chart. But is it a failure to have not measured gases when there are no gases to be measured? Is it a failure to have risen in the dark of night, pressed on through rain, snow, and lightning, and to have greeted the dawn atop a 5023 metre, snow-capped pinnacle of beauty and power, sharing its majesty with friends old and new?

...yes it's a FAIL.

But! Words of the great experimenter Thomas Edison provide solace to the thwarted volcanologist: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The TRAIL BY FIRE in-turn went on to find another of the 10,000 ways-that-won’t-work at the nearby Cotopaxi, only 50 km South of Quito.

Cotopaxi is nothing short of magnificent. Rising to 5897 metres, this colossus was described by Alexander von Humboldt as “the most beautiful and perfect volcano”, and is frequently listed among the highest active volcanoes in the world (with lists varying, as some debate surrounds which volcanoes can still be considered active).

Cotopaxi is perhaps the most dangerous volcano in Ecuador. Not only has it erupted more than 50 times since the 18th century, but its summit also hosts vast, dissected glaciers that are prone to melting and generating exceptionally large lahars. Cotopaxi was, however, quiet for nearly 70 years until mid-2015.

Records starting in 1996 recorded total seismic events numbering 10-25 per day at Cotopaxi – the “background” level. I.G. noted that things started getting shakey in April 2015, with total seismicity building to 3000 events in the month of May. Concurrently, SO2 emissions increased from a background of 500 tons/day to 2500-3000 tons/day. All of this was to herald a new eruptive phase from the mighty Cotopaxi, beginning with some phreatic (steam) blasts on 14 August, 2015. Cotopaxi had awakened.

And what an awakening it was. From August 2015 to January 2016, Cotopaxi unleashed steam and ash plumes reaching ≤10 km high: visible from Quito. It trembled - with hundreds of volcano tectonic earthquakes each day; it belched - emitting a maximum of 16,700 tons of SO2 in one day; it heaved – the West flank moving en masse in response to magma movement; and it fouled – generating no fewer than 58 rain-triggered and 4 glacier-trigged lahars with volumes up to 50,000 cubic metres of mud. Through it all, the TRAIL BY FIRE’s expert colleagues and new friends at I.G. monitored the volcano relentlessly, with state of the art instruments and regular overflights.

But what did this mighty massif have for the TRAIL BY FIRE team? Well… not much…

On ten mornings, we rose well before dawn and drove 2+ hours to the flanks of Cotopaxi, hoping to get a glimpse and a spectroscopic taste of the current gas emissions. We did get glimpses, and magnificent though the volcano was, in 10 attempts, only once was a small portion of a small plume visible from the beast. It was cat-and-mouse. We would see the plume clearly on the approach, and arrive at the observation point to be socked in with pea soup fog. Or would arrive in hot equatorial sunshine, only to be snowed upon by the time the instruments were deployed. 10 pre-dawn attempts! 10 times sent packing! 10 times data-less! 10 times FAILED!

But this was a rich learning experience for the TRAIL BY FIRE, nonetheless. Although we did not learn the flux and composition of (non- or barely-existent plumes) at Tungurahua and Cotopaxi, we learned the value of perseverance. We learned that to achieve any great goal, one must brazenly flirt with the hairline division between success and failure. Above all, we learned that even in the year 2017, equipped with the most advanced instruments, and linked to a worldwide network of the finest scientists, we are still at the mercy of the elements. Our human desire for scientific instant gratification is of no consequence to the infinitely patient Andean volcanoes we hope to understand. When we are successful in achieving our scientific goals, it is with a healthy dose of luck, and is at the grace and will of our dynamic Earth.

The bright side of the fire

All cynicism aside, the Ecuadorian leg of the TRAIL BY FIRE was by no means a total failure. When our target volcanoes didn’t behave we turned to secondary objectives - collecting gas samples from thermal springs around Tungurahua and the crater lake at Quilotoa, conducting long-range and high-altitude tests of our TurboAce drone-mounted MultiGAS system, sitting around talking about how great our Cactus Supertrousers are, and collecting rock and tephra samples for future laboratory analyses. Also, we succeeded in capturing fantastic high-frequency degassing data from "The Exploder" himself, El Reventador. 

The view from Hotel El Reventador

The view from Hotel El Reventador

Looking at the expedition as a whole, there are still more green ticks than red crosses on Yvo’s unforgiving table. Even when counting non-degassing volcanoes as “failures”, we’ve achieved a respectable 66% success rate, for obtaining high-quality gas flux and composition data, in the combined 5 months of expedition work (a 78% success rate if we omit non-degassing volcanoes)! Some results of this work are already published in scientific journals - and other aspects are in review or preparation for publication. Most of the volcanoes we worked on had never been measured before. Our work will help establish the global flux of volatiles (H2O, CO2, SO2, H2S, H2, CO, HCl, HF…) coming out of volcanoes and mixing into our atmosphere, in turn helping to better constrain global climate models. In addition, measuring the composition of volcanic gases informs us on the state of the magma beneath each volcano and is hence useful for understanding the behaviour of a particular volcano, and its potential for future activity. In this sense, our expedition has provided a background for the gas composition of many active Andean volcanoes. Future deviations from these backgrounds would indicate evolution of an individual volcano's magmatic system.  

Check out this summary slide of all the volcanoes studied on the TRAIL BY FIRE.

The memories. The friends. The future.

The TRAIL BY FIRE has been an unforgettable adventure for all of the core and extended team. Even having visited nearly twenty active volcanoes, the unique character of each remains distinct in our memories. We’ll remember the exhausting climbs and freezing temperatures at the summits of ~6000 metre-high giants, and the vast diversity of volcanic landscapes and phenomena they displayed. Even though these were all continental arc volcanoes, none looks or behaves quite the same. We’ll remember the scale of the Nazca Subduction zone that we’ve followed, driving 20,000 km, mostly on dirt roads in the undisturbed emptiness of the altiplano. We’ll remember the bruises, cuts, bites, and occasional hospital trips… But most of all we’ll remember the people with whom we shared so many good laughs and adventures.

Without help from our friends, none of the TRAIL BY FIRE could have been possible. In Ecuador, it was Silvana Hidalgo, Freddy Vásconez, Marco Almeida, Diego Narváez and Benjamin Bernard from Instituto Geofísico and Jean-Luc Le Pennec from IRD. In Peru, it was Pablo Masias and Fredy Apaza from the Observatorio Vulcanológico del INGEMMET. In Chile, it was Alvaro Ámigo, Daniel Bertin and Gabriela Velasquez from the Observatorio Volcanológico de los Andes del Sur, and René Cárdenas, Corinne Bentley and Monchy Zapata from the Cuerpo de Socorro Andino de Chile. Joining from Palermo, it was Alessandro Aiuppa and Giancarlo Tamburello as the Ruta de la Ricotta. We’ll also remember all the people who helped us along the way, supported us, gave us directions, followed the journey, and made the dream a reality.

We would like once more to thank all of our sponsors, who were pivotal in bringing the TRAIL BY FIRE to fruition: The Royal Geographical Society with IBG, Land Rover, Ocean Optics, Crowcon, Cactus Outdoor, the Deep Carbon Observatory, ThermoFisher Scientific, Turbo Ace, Air Liquide and Team BlackSheep. Also, special thanks to Freda Wells for giving life to the TRAIL BY FIRE logo!

Finally we would like to thank you for reading these posts. They have helped us to share our passion for science and adventure, and we hope they will inspire you to dream big and follow your ideas to the end, even, and especially if they seem unfeasible!

This marks the end of the TRAIL BY FIRE... FOR NOW. The rookie, João, is carrying on to tidy up some loose volcanic ends in Columbia, and the rest of the team is dreaming and scheming for the next leg of the trail. Will it take us to hotspot volcanoes? Rifts? Supervolcanoes? Submarine "Exploders"? Outer planets? To find out, put a candle in the window... the TRAIL BY FIRE could be rocking up to a volcano near you.

Welcome to the Jungle: EL REVENTADOR

Only just recovered from the high alpine of Tungurahua, the team had a very different challenge ahead: the savage and verdant Ecuadorian jungle. Multiple sources suggested that to the East of the team's Quito headquarters, beyond the Andes on the Amazonian plain, there lived a character ominously named: EL REVENTADOR a.k.a. “THE EXPLODER”. 

EL REVENTADOR had been putting on a show for at least 15 years, with up to 40 explosions per day, regular pyroclastic flows, ballistic bombs and lavas. Some might cower at the thought of such a spectacle, but the TRAIL BY FIRE team, with I.G. colleagues Freddy, Diego, and Silvana, were yearning for front-row seats. The cars were packed with instruments, luxurious snacks and portable suites (read: crappy tents) and a big dose of optimism for what was to come. EL REVENTADOR was to be the next chapter of TBF 1.5.

The impenetrable jungle holds many secrets, and does not give them up willingly. The approach to EL REVENTADOR is no straightforward comedy. It is an unending purgatory that one endures in order to reach a paradise that is itself an inferno. The dawn of departure was shrouded in dark clouds. The air was a thick scourge of mosquitoes. The ground was a tangled snare of vegetation. Snakes, pumas, bloodthirsty millipedes and rhinoceros beetles were to be the only witnesses to the team’s plight; and through it all, no hint of a volcano in sight.

Gumboots and Supertrousers became the team's best friends; and João “The Rookie” got stuck right in to the (rubber) boot camp of volcanology. But we had our eyes on the prize, and nothing could stop us from  "machete-ing" our way to the fabled Amazonian arena of the greatest show on Earth.

When we reached the campsite in EL REVENTADOR’s caldera, it was hardly a warm welcome. It was wet. Heavy rain was driven at us from all points of the compass. The wreckage of a rough-hewn shelter was all that awaited the team. Carving out a soggy existence, the team struggled to keep the fire alive... and waited...

Until at long last…      From behind the clouds…      It came… BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM.

Dinner was served. Clouds parted. Fresh lava flows steamed in the distance, the explosions held a deep bass over which ballistic Rolling Stones played melodies of destruction. The near horizon was the dream of dreams for every volcanologist.

And so the team’s work began. Just as the jungle guards its secrets, so too does EL REVENTADOR. Except for some some petrological and thermal studies, “The Exploder” has largely eluded scientists. Before the team’s visit, measurements of the flux and composition of gases from this tempestuous beast had never been obtained. The team set to work under variable conditions: heavy rain punctuated by intensive equatorial sun. They were vigilant into the night - watching the natural fireworks of incandescent rocks, and into the early in the morning – hoping to catch glimpses before the respiration of the Amazonian forest closed in around them again.

When it rained, the team scrambled to collect ash from leaves and tents. When it briefly cleared, they trained their instruments on the sky, scanning for hints of UV absorption with which to quantify this character’s temperament.

For three days, the symphony of EL REVENTADOR’s rumbling and rolling was joined by a chorus of awed gasps and cries…  the tell-tale that TRAIL BY FIRE had reached one of its finest destinations.

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…