19 March 2010

The Santiaguito Volcano Observatory

Posted by Jessica Ball

It’s Friday! Which means picture day, because pictures are easy and fun. I thought – as a lead-in to a fundraising project I’m starting, and which I’ll talk about in the next post – that I’d give you all a tour of the Santiaguito Volcano Observatory. I’ve been there twice, on my last trip to Guatemala and for a couple of days on this year’s trip. After five days of camping next to an active lava dome complex, this is pretty much the lap of luxury. Beds, electricity, running water – heaven! Plus it’s set in the middle of a lovely coffee plantation, and the views are incredible. 
Seriously, you can’t compete with this for a first-thing-in-the-morning vista. You do have to get up early to see it – things cloud in by about 10 in the dry season, and probably even earlier in the rainy season (if you can see it at all). This view is looking northwest toward the cone of Santa Maria and the Caliente dome of Santiaguito. In the foreground is the Observatory’s weather station, the front door, and a nicely informative sign.

See? Location and elevation. The Observatory is located on the land of one of the local fincas, which is owned by sells to Starbucks. The building, water and electricity are (if I’m remembering correctly) all The land was donated to INSIVUMEH, who built the observatory, and visitors who stay there pay a small fee for the drinking water and cooking gas that they use. There are usually two or three INSIVUMEH observers there full time – they have bedrooms and a nice little kitchen – and there are bunks for visiting scientists.

The Observatory’s capabilities are pretty limited, however. The observers have been working there for years and know a lot about the volcano, but they’re not academic scientists, and they don’t have much equipment to speak of. Eruptions at Santiaguito are watched through the north-facing window in this photo, and reports are radioed back to Guatemala City and recorded on the typewriter. There’s a pair of binoculars for closer observations, since it’s a pain to drive much further toward the volcano from here, but that’s mostly it.
The trusty (but noisy!) typewriter. If you see a report on Santa Maria in the Global Volcanism Program’s newsletter, it was written up here first. There’s no internet access at the Observatory, so whatever they want to report has to go out by radio or cell phone. They’re working to change that, though – more on that later.
My favorite part of the Observatory! This is part of their rock collection, and a scale model of Santa Maria and the domes (made with actual rock and ash from the domes). If I was watching a volcano and had my view rained out for half the year (and a good bit of the clear days), I’d totally make one of these.
Another view, first thing in the morning. All the plants in the foreground are official Starbucks coffee plants, which are apparently unaffected by being ashed on every once in a while. (The finca office will sell you ground coffee for considerably less than Starbucks, and it’s delicious. Probably because it hasn’t been burned, which SB seems to like to do for some reason. Oddly enough, most Guatemalans don’t drink coffee from the fincas – either they can’t afford it, or they prefer the instant kind. Go figure.)

Our dual FLIR-video camera setup.Watching eruptions with a thermal camera is amazing, because you can see how the thermal currents rise in an eruption column (even when there’s no more material coming from the vent).

And you get to see things like this – the top of an eruption cloud being sheared off by the wind. The wind patterns around Santa Maria have regional trends that change with the season, but locally they can change day by day. Eruptions occur at Santiaguito every few hours, so there’s a near constant supply of ash to the areas surrounding the volcano. On the most recent trip we were fortunate enough to avoid having to deal with much ash (only a little on the first day), but people who live and work on the fincas and the Xela area have to put up with it all the time. Imagine having all that ash in your coffee!