A Boise Scientist Hopes A Guatemalan Volcano Can Help Predict Future Eruptions

Feb 9, 2016

There’s a volcano in Guatemala that erupts on a regular basis, so regular that some scientists call it the “Old Faithful” of volcanoes. That makes it very popular with people who study volcanoes, like Boise State Professor Jeffrey Johnson.

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Johnson recently led 60 researchers from Mexico, France, Italy and the United Kingdom to conduct different studies on the volcano. He returned last month and says the work being done in Guatemala could someday help scientists better predict how other volcanoes will behave.

Though the volcano has been erupting since 1922, people still live on its flanks. In fact, if you had a latté from Starbucks recently, you may have been drinking coffee that was picked in the shadow of Santiaguito. Large plantations on the volcano are dedicated to coffee and Macadamia nuts. Starbucks has a plantation on the lower flanks. Each day, hundreds of workers enter into the volcanic zone to pick coffee beans.

Johnson says there are tens of thousands of active volcanoes worldwide, but there are only about 60 that are erupting right now. Santiaguito is one of them.

“You can go down, install your instruments, and then sit back and wait an hour or maybe two, and watch an explosion,” says Johnson. He says it sends ash over a half mile into the air. “This volcano is special because you can go and study it and it becomes a natural laboratory.”

Johnson says not all volcanoes behave exactly like Santiaguito, but many will. Mount St. Helens in Washington state has a very similar magma chemistry, says Johnson.

“During periods of St. Helen’s life it behaved very similarly [to Santiaguito] in its eruptive style,” he says. “So we study volcanoes like Santiaguito to get a better sense of volcanoes that have erupted here local to us and that will erupt in the future.”

He’s hoping what scientists learn at Santiaguito can translate into better predictions of future eruptions of other volcanoes.

“We learn pieces of the puzzle to help us better forecast eruptions, better understand how big they might be, and to get better precision on the timing of an eruption.”

The data gathered by the group will be published over the next year. BSU professor Jeffrey Johnson has just published data from a past trip to Guatemala in the journal Nature, on how gases are released from magmas.

Here's a closer look at the work being done at Santiaguito. Check out the drone camera flying over the erupting volcano at :40 seconds into the video!

Volcanology: Life in the Field from Zach Voss on Vimeo. This short film is about some of the volcanologists involved in the Volcano Workshop in Guatemala. It is directed and produced by Zach Voss as both an entry into National Geographic's Wild to Inspire short film contest and overview of an upcoming story about volcano research in The Blue Review."

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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