24 April 2009

Is there a pre-death version of the Darwin awards?

Posted by Jessica Ball

Because these people all deserve them.

In an attempt to find some older videos of the eruptions at Santiaguito, I came across a number of these clips on YouTube. Apparently there’s a tour group in Guatemala (which I will not name) that not only takes you to see the volcano, it takes you onto the Caliente dome. Onto an active, erupting lava dome.

My head just about exploded when I saw this, and it took a good five minutes before I was capable of coherent speech. And then my reaction was:

These are stupid, idiotic, crazy, insane people.

Do not ever, ever, EVER do something like this. I’m studying Santiaguito because the domes are capable of – and have – killed people in the past. All of you geologists – heck, everyone with the smallest ounce of self-preservation – know that being anywhere near an exploding volcano is a spectacularly stupid idea. This is not Kilauea – this is the equivalent of multiple bombs going off every few hours. All those rocks scattered around the videos? Those are ballistics, and they obviously made it that far. Even one the size of a golf ball can kill you, even if you’re wearing safety gear – which the people in these videos are not. The reason that they’re are so excited is not just that they’re seeing an eruption – it’s the adrenaline that their bodies are pumping out so they can run like hell in the opposite direction.

I will be climbing the inactive lava domes at the far end of the complex because I need to collect samples and look for structural features, and I can’t do it from remote sensing data. I will be nowhere near Caliente, for damn good reasons. Not only am I taking precautions with a helmet, gas mask, gloves, etc. etc., I will be as far outside the ballistic fallout zone as possible, and you know what? I’m still going to be nervous as hell, because I will be on an active volcano.

If you’re ever in Guatemala, for God’s sake don’t go on this tour. Climb Santa Maria, watch it from a few kilometers off, but don’t climb onto Caliente and watch it erupt from twenty meters away. Quite frankly, I am amazed that no one seems to have died doing this. I understand that there is little regulation of tours like this in Guatemala, and no regulation of who can go where on the volcano, and that most people don’t know much about volcanoes, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would want to make a living by taking people to hang out next to an exploding mountain. Guatemalans can be pretty poor, but there’s got to be a better way for them to make money than this.

(There seems to be a lot of volcano-related stupidity going around lately – at Arenal, the Kamchatka Peninsula and Tonga – although I take it these tours have been going on for a while. I for one hope that they stop, but I’m afraid it will take deaths for that to happen. And I won’t call it a tragedy, because there’s no way you can do this stuff and not know how freaking dangerous it is.)