Vital volcano insights come at a cost during UBC scientists’ summer expedition

It started out like the camping trip from hell, but it turned into the research expedition of a lifetime for three University of British Columbia volcanologists.

It started out like the camping trip from hell, but it turned into the research expedition of a lifetime for three University of British Columbia volcanologists.

Colin Rowell and Johan Gilchrist, PhD students in UBC’s department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences, travelled in late May with professor Mark Jellinek to meet French and Peruvian research teams at Sabancaya—a so-called “laboratory volcano” in the Peruvian Andes. Such volcanoes have short and frequent eruptions that are safely viewed from a few kilometres away. The Peruvians had invaluable local knowledge of the volcano, so conditions seemed ideal for the international team to observe and collect data.

Conditions, of course, can change.

Rowell and Jellinek beat Gilchrist to the mountains by a day. Their first night was a harbinger of what was to come. After a slow, four-wheel drive along rocky routes that were barely marked, they hastily set up camp on an exposed plateau at 5,000 metres before night fell on the desert mountains. The temperature dropped to -25 C overnight, and they felt it.

Tea would warm them up, but they hadn’t been able to find proper camp stove fuel in Arequipa or Chivay, the towns along their route. So they carried diesel from local gas stations in jerry cans. Cooking with diesel, they discovered, is messy.

“We got up there the next day and spotted them and thought, ‘OK, good, they’ve settled,’” recalled Gilchrist. “Then we got closer and they were just covered in this black soot. I said, ‘What have you guys been doing up here, coal mining?’ I couldn’t believe how filthy they were after just one night.”

They may have woken up filthy, but they also woke up to their first volcanic eruption.

“It was absolutely awe-inspiring,” said Rowell. “That was a big morale boost. We found our stride, adjusted to the altitude, and the volcano started doing its spectacular thing.”

Members of the research team observe Sabancaya from camp, where they had set up their new Doppler radar instrument. Courtesy: Colin Rowell and Johan Gilchrist
Sabancaya sends a plume of smoke, gas and ash into the air. Debris from its eruptions can reach a height of five kilometres. Courtesy: Colin Rowell and Johan Gilchrist
The Doppler radar instrument developed by members of the French team can measure the volume and velocity of particles in a volcanic plume. Courtesy: Colin Rowell and Johan Gilchrist
El Misti over Arequipa. Courtesy: Colin Rowell and Johan Gilchrist

Gilchrist’s late arrival had spared him a night of shivering in his tent with a soot-covered face, but for him the worst was still to come. Sometime after landing in Peru, he had picked up a stomach bug. By his third day in camp, the stomach bug, altitude sickness and partial blindness from an old eye injury that was being irritated by airborne ash had knocked him flat. He had to rest in his tent while others hiked nearby peaks for a good look at the volcano.

To the team’s delight, the volcano erupted like clockwork every four and a half hours. They could watch plumes of volcanic rocks, gas and ash rise five kilometres against a cloudless blue sky. Rowell’s thermal camera measured the plumes’ heat and turbulence properties, while Gilchrist captured the volume and velocity of particles using a new Doppler radar instrument brought by his French colleagues. They will use that data to build computer models of how volcanic plumes behave–how high they rise, when they fall, how much ash they contain and how hot they become.

The team was thrilled with the quantity and quality of the data, but Rowell and Jellinek were concerned about Gilchrist’s health. All he could do was crawl out of his tent, force down some food, drink hot tea and take notes by his camera. Then he’d crawl back in the tent to suffer for a few hours before the next volcanic eruption.

Rowell and Jellinek were scheduled to leave earlier than Gilchrist, and thought they might bring their ailing partner back home as well. But when Gilchrist accompanied them back to Chivay, with its cleaner air and lower elevation, he felt recharged. His bug was subsiding, and he stayed another week to collect data from the camp below Sabancaya.

“We went into this trip not quite knowing how it would go, and there were definitely some demoralizing moments, but we came away with a really inspiring experience and a dataset that is going to give us some unique insight,” said Rowell. “That was a really good feeling for all of us.”

The value of the data sank in for Gilchrist near the end of his trip, when he climbed El Misti, a volcano looming over the growing city of Arequipa, home to 800,000 people. From Misti’s summit, Gilchrist could see inside its crater–a fresh, active volcano full of red rocks, crystallized lava and swirling gases. Down the slope, he saw small homes scattered throughout the foothills, illegal but tolerated settlements of rural migrants who have moved to the city for work. Those people were, and are, in the danger zone.

“They’re right there,” Gilchrist said. “And this thing will erupt again. It has erupted in the past. When it does, I hope the people of Arequipa are ready.”

It was a sobering reminder of why Gilchrist, Rowell, Jellinek and their colleagues do the work they do — to make the unpredictable a little more predictable, and perhaps save lives.