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.