In the Shadow of a Volcano

Around the world, volcanoes threaten nearly half a billion people. Scientists are working to better forecast when eruptions will occur and support communities that live with this risk.

In 2017, a volcanologist, a photographer, and a cartographer traveled to Guatemala on a National Geographic-funded expedition.

Their goal was three-fold: to conduct innovative research that could help shape volcanic eruption warning systems; to create educational materials that explain the risks of living in the vicinity of a volcano; and to better understand what it is about these locations that is appealing enough for communities to remain there despite the risks.

The story below is based on the insights gained from this effort. It’s told from the perspective of a volcano, a community member, and a scientist.

Volcan de fuego erupts at sunrise.

Fuego volcano erupting, as seen from the summit of Santa María Volcano. Fuego is one of three currently active volcanoes in Guatemala. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Chapter 1: Volcano

I'm an active volcano. My story began tens of thousands of years ago, its chapters cyclical in nature. They start with hot molten rock rising from deep below. The pressure builds, builds, and builds some more, an incredible force accumulating within. Eventually it becomes so strong I erupt with fiery vigor, unleashing torrents of gas, ash, rock, and debris that cascade down my sides, leveling everything they touch. The lava follows lazily behind, engulfing whatever lies before it with patience and steady persistence.

Explore the Santa María volcano using the controls on the right.

This power, this might of mine, it is formidable. Not only do I tower over a landscape, I shape it, remaking a portion of it in my own image. A century ago I channeled my explosive energy into carving out a massive crater, exposing new outlets for the lava within and building a series of domes, over which I now keep a watchful eye. 

During an eruption large quantity of steam is released into the air. Video: Ross Donihue

I have sometimes gone quiet for long stretches of time, content to conserve my energy and simply survey all that lies around me. Lately, though, I've seen no appeal in a tranquil existence, drawn instead to more frequent expressions of my might. They are not so dramatic as eruptions of the past, admittedly. But they serve as constant reminders of what lies beneath—the sheer power I alone command.

Chapter 2: Community

Community members gather in a house near Quezaltenango.

The majority of the people living in Quezaltenango are indigenous and live in close proximity to the Santa María volcano. Photo: Wiki commons

Hot springs are common in this region because of the geothermal activity near volcanoes. Tourists and locals alike can relax and enjoy the beautiful landscapes. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Hot springs are common in this region because of the geothermal activity near volcanoes. Tourists and locals alike can relax and enjoy the beautiful landscapes. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Quetzaltenango is the only home I have ever known. It's where I was born, where my mother was born, where her mother was born, and her mother's mother before that. It is where my children will be born, too.

In recent years more and more visitors have been coming to Quetzaltenango. Often they ask me why we live here. They point to Santa María, sitting off in the distance, and ask if we aren't worried about its eruptions destroying our homes.

A view of Santa María Volcano from a village south of the volcano. This bridge and the surrounding area has been impacted by lahars produced after large eruptions.

A view of Santa María Volcano from a village south of the volcano. This bridge and the surrounding area has been impacted by lahars produced after large eruptions. Photo: Gabby Salazar

What good would it do to worry? The volcano is here, but so is my family, and so are the fields we rely on to make our living. My life is here. Santa María does not change that, no matter how much steam it sends into the air.

I think visitors always assume Santa María explosions are as big as the ones you read about in books, or see in dramatic movies. But really, the volcano erupts all the time. It is just a part of life. If we were to worry about every single eruption, we would be too scared to do anything, and for no reason!

Agriculture around volcanoes thrive in the productive soil. Coffee grows particularly well around Santa María. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Of course we know there is some danger, but there is danger in all parts of living. If we hear Santa María is going to have a very bad eruption, we will do what we need to do. Until then, my family and I will continue to live our lives here, because this is our home.

The land is fertile and helps feed my family. The mountains are beautiful with lush green hills and cold mountain water. The hot springs are plentiful and relaxing to visit with my family.

Chapter 3: Scientist

Dr. Stephanie Grocke sets up and tests photogrammetry equipment before the expedition up Santa María Volcano.

Dr. Stephanie Grocke sets up and tests photogrammetry equipment before the expedition up Santa María Volcano. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Field work on the Santa María volcano requires hundreds of pounds of gear including scientific equipment, food, water, and camping supplies.

Field work on the Santa María volcano requires hundreds of pounds of gear including scientific equipment, food, water, and camping supplies. Photo: Ross Donihue

There's nothing quite like the thrill of going into the field for research. It's a kind of nervous excitement that just keeps building—through grant writing, planning, meticulously taking stock of the necessary gear, packing, hustling through the airport, watching the ground race by below the plane. Then, finally, the arrival. I'm here—I've made it to Quetzaltenango, and the Santiaguito complex is waiting.

In 1902 the Santa María Volcano erupted leaving behind a massive crater. Since then, four smaller domes have formed: Caliente, Mitad, Monje, and Brujo.

Santiaguito, if you're not familiar, is a complex of four lava domes that sit at the base of the Santa María volcano. Santa María is best known for its massive eruption in 1902; the event was devastating, decimating the surrounding area and killing thousands. It ended up being one of the largest eruptions of the century.

The anatomy of a volcano. Magma orginates around 100 km below the surface of the earth and then is expelled when gasses build pressure and explode.

Since then, the magma below the surface has started to emerge in lava flows at the base of the volcano. Over time, these flows have accumulated into the four different lava domes present today: Caliente, El Brujo, El Monje, and La Mitad.

The domes have been erupting on a regular basis over the past 100 years. Thankfully, these eruptions have been relatively minor. But the near-constant activity makes the complex an ideal place for research.

This expedition has the potential for some ground-breaking research. My team and I plan to explore the possibility of remote cameras and time-lapse photography as a way to identify indicators of imminent volcanic activity.

Hundreds of thousands of people live near the base of Santa María. Another major eruption could be devastating. But, if our camera experiment works, it could provide powerful, reliable tools for warning nearby communities when they need to evacuate ahead of an especially large eruption.

Lights can be seen at night from the top of Santa María. This is one way of showing how many communities live close to active volcanoes in the region.

The lights in this time exposure are from cities close to the active Santiaguito volcano. Photo: Ross Donihue

Chapter 4: Volcano

To be able to shape a landscape, I use specialized tools. I have several, all of them working in tandem to create something unstoppable. There is the lava, of course. Thick and scalding, it gradually spreads and piles onto itself, accumulating in a mass that reaches higher and higher, constructing a lasting tribute to my supremacy.

A view of Caliente lava dome erupting from the summit of Santa María Volcano. Caliente is part of the Santiaguito lava-dome complex, one of three active volcanic complexes in Guatemala.

A view of Caliente lava dome erupting from the summit of Santa María Volcano. Caliente is part of the Santiaguito lava-dome complex, one of three active volcanic complexes in Guatemala. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Then there are the thick clouds of ash, gas, and debris I generate during my strongest displays of force. While lava moves slowly and steadily, my clouds are swift and impatient. They cover vast tracts of ground with such speed that nothing can hope to outrun them—anyone who tries will find themselves swallowed up by the churning cloud of chaos.

My last instrument of change comes alive with the rain, of which there is plenty. As it falls, the water mixes with the layers of ash and rock I've accumulated on the surface. The dark, viscous mixture rushes down my sloping sides, building enough momentum to level anything in its path.

A view of the active Caliente lava dome from an overlook that allows safe observation of the lava dome at eye level.

A view of the active Caliente lava dome from an overlook that allows safe observation of the lava dome at eye level. Photo: Gabby Salazar

The full extent of my greatness is most apparent when all three of these forces work in concert. Those who look on as I completely transform all that surrounds me cannot help but feel a sense of uncomprehending awe.

Chapter 5: Scientist

Santa María Volcano

The expedition team had to ascend nearly 5,000' to get to the summit of the Santa María volcano (12,375'). Video: Gabby Salazar

Like all good expeditions, this one started with a hike. I wanted to set up three cameras overlooking the lava dome complex—to do that, the team needed to get above them. So we laced up our boots, shouldered our packs, and began climbing to the top of Santa María.

The scenery was incredible, complete with tranquil, foggy woods that opened up onto sweeping views of the world stretched out below. It was a long, intense trek, but, as I sit perched at the top, I know it was completely worth it.

Basecamp at the top of Santa María has four tents and an amazing view of the surrounding area.

Basecamp at the top of Santa María. Photo: Ross Donihue

With camp set up, our next task will be to get the cameras into position. Each one needs to collect a different view of the same portion of the lava domes, and they have to be close enough together that the remote trigger fires them simultaneously. On top of that, we'll have to replace the batteries every eight hours to ensure the time-lapse sequences collect enough data to let us identify any observable changes or patterns regarding the lava domes.

The clouds might be our biggest challenge, though. This high up, they can completely obscure the view of the domes below. It makes for beautiful photos, but it's not so great for data collection.

The expedition team, including Dr. Stephanie Grocke, Ross Donihue, and Armando Pineda, cook dinner at the summit of Santa María Volcano while studying the Santiaguito lava dome complex.

The expedition team, including Dr. Stephanie Grocke, Ross Donihue, and Armando Pineda, cook dinner at the summit of Santa María Volcano while studying the Santiaguito lava dome complex. Photo: Gabby Salazar

Chapter 6: Community

The photo exhibit opened to a crowd of over 90 people on December 1st, 2017.

The photo exhibit opened to a crowd of over 90 people on December 1st, 2017. Photo: Gabby Salazar

There is a new photo exhibit in town. It is about the volcano. Apparently a group of scientists have been using cameras to try and learn more about it, and they created an exhibit to help explain what they learned to those of us who live here. A friend of mine asked me to go with her to see it, otherwise I probably wouldn't have gone.

Santiaguito Dome Complex with a camera setup to record eruption events.

Santiaguito Dome Complex with a camera setup to record eruption events. Photo: Ross Donihue

It turned out to be interesting, though. The photographs were beautiful and they were using photography to study the volcano in an attempt to forecast eruptions based on the images. They said the photos they collected showed movement that you wouldn't be able to see just by looking with your own eyes, and so this will help them know when the volcano is becoming more active. It could also help create live warning systems about an upcoming eruption.

I don't know how long any of that would take to establish; it sounded like it wouldn't happen right away. But in the meantime, I am not worried. The volcano has always been there, just as I have always been here. Perhaps one day it will become so active I need to worry, but until then I will keep on as usual. Maybe by then this alert system will be set up anyway. The scientists seemed very excited about it. And it was nice of them to take time to share what they have been doing. My friend told me not many scientists who come here explain their work to those of us that live in the community.

But, for now, the scientists have left. I think they went home to keep studying their photographs. I am still here, and so is the volcano, a distant, constant neighbor.

Sunrise from the summit of Santa María

Sunrise from the summit of Santa María. Photo: Ross Donihue

The 2017 volcano expedition was funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society. While there, the team participated in several education events, and donated an exhibit of photos to the local tourism board. You can learn more about the project here.

This story was created by the StoryMaps team using the new ArcGIS StoryMaps Beta. Learn more about this next-generation storytelling tool—and try it yourself—here.