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Community volcano monitoring: The first weeks at Volcan de Fuego

Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) is an active volcano close to the Guatemalan city of Antigua. The volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in central America with a lively history of life-threatening eruptions.  It is thought that around 60,000 people are currently at risk from the volcano.

Monitoring the volcano is challenging with a limited availability of resources in the developing country. Bristol volcanology PhD student Emma Liu and colleagues are currently in Guatemala implementing a novel program to monitor ash fall from the volcano using community involvement. Volcanic ash is a hazard to human health, as well as to aviation. Additionally it holds vital clues into the activity of the volcano that can help us to understand past eruptions and predict what it may do in the future.  Once ash falls to the ground it is easily blown or washed away meaning lots of valuable information is lost in the hours and days after an eruption. Collecting ash as it falls can be challenging over a large area so Emma is roping in the local population to help.

Her cleverly designed ‘ashmeters’ are made almost entirely from recycled plastic bottles and are being installed in the gardens of local schools and houses around the volcano.  The components are easily replaceable and can be found locally. The ash falls into the meters and can be then collected and bagged by the residents. So far the meters have been installed in nine locations all around the volcano allowing Emma and her team to sample ash from almost any possible type of eruption.  As well as being indispensible from a scientific perspective, Emma hopes the scheme will help to improve the relationship between scientists and the volcano’s residents as she explains; ‘By engaging local communities directly in volcano monitoring, we hope to improve the two-way dialogue between scientists and residents, thereby increasing resilience to ash hazards’.
The scheme so far has been a great success, with the ashmeters being welcomed into people’s homes and attached to roofs and fencepost. Within a week of the ashmeters being deployed, they were tested by a large eruption on the 1 March 2016. Three ashmeters were installed during this eruption, all of which successfully collected ash. The Bristol volcanologists have now been able collect the ash which will be brought back to the University of Bristol for analysis.  The Bristol group will remain out in Guatemala for another few weeks in the hope they will able to distribute more ashmeters and gather more vital information for the management of volcanic hazard in the area. Emma received funding from the Bristol Cabot Institute Innovation Fund to set up this project.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara


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