Geology for Global Development

Field Research in Guatemala (4) – Reflections from Fuego


Small eruption of Fuego, Guatemala (Credit: Joel Gill, 2014)

Small eruption of Fuego, Guatemala
(Credit: Joel Gill, 2014)

Joel Gill (GfGD Founding Director) continues his live reporting from Guatemala, discussing his interdisciplinary field research relating to natural hazard interactions and disaster risk reduction. This fieldwork forms part of a NERC/ESRC funded PhD, supervised by staff in the Department of Geography at King’s College London.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to see some remarkable things in Guatemala. The most special but also poignant time was around the Volcano Fuego. This location rapidly became my favourite in Guatemala, and for a number of a reasons a place I can’t get out of mind. In today’s post I reflect on some personal feelings – touching on both the incredible beauty of volcanic activity but also the serious danger that these phenomena can cause to vulnerable communities, and our responsibility to support disaster risk reduction.

Let me set the scene, we get up and set of at around 7.30am – driving for a couple of hours around and then up the side of a volcano, Acatenango. After parking up, we put our backpacks on, admire the stunning view across the plain of the volcano Agua and set off on a long walk. This trek takes us around the side of Acatenango so as to get a view of the active volcano, Fuego.


Small eruption of Fuego, Guatemala
(Credit: Joel Gill, 2014)

When the volcano came into sight, we were greeted with a loud explosion of noise and the firing of material (mainly gas, ash and rock material) into the air. This was my first sight or experience of an erupting volcano. It was relatively gentle activity, these blasts normally occur at Fuego several times each day at the moment. Shortly afterwards the volcano grumbled again and more material was ejected into the air. This happened a third, fourth, fifth time… and more. Seeing something so close, and hearing the intensity of the bang and the amount of material ejected – and yet also appreciating how small the eruption was compared to the kinds of eruptions that demand mass evacuations was quite poignant. During a serious eruption, the noise and volume of material must be phenomenally scary to encounter.

Volcanoes are remarkably beautiful by day, but at night they are simply stunning. Arriving at the Fuego Volcanic Observatory I was designated an open air bed in the back of a pick-up truck. This turned out to be the best bad night’s sleep I’ve ever had. My view for the night would be Fuego. The observatory is located on the other side of the volcano to the views we’d got by day. Once dark, and with a clear night, each explosion sent out of the volcano a blast of red-hot rock, as well as gas and ash. The peak of the volcanic cone glowed red as very hot ‘volcanic bombs’ fired into the air and rolled down the volcano at tremendous velocities. These small eruptions elicited genuine awe and amazement… it was a truly unforgettable evening.

Seeing these sights was an incredible privilege as a geologist, a hazards researcher or just as someone with a love of the natural environment. But the chance to see these things also comes with a stark reminder that I almost certainly won’t be next to the volcano when it next explodes with the huge power that may kill many people. This was hammered home the following day, when we visited sites of recent lahars and pyroclastic flows – two hazards associated with this volcano.

2012 Lahar Deposits, Fuego, Guatemala (note the destroyed road in the background) (Credit: Joel Gill, 2014)

2012 Lahar Deposits, Fuego, Guatemala (note the destroyed road in the background on the left)
(Credit: Joel Gill, 2014)

Lahars are generated when rain mixes with sediment created by the volcanic eruptions. They move with great speed and power, carrying huge amounts of material with them. In 2012, after a larger eruption of Fuego, a number of lahars were generated in the rainy season carrying with them material that had formed a pyroclastic flow down the volcano. These lahars impacted an area with little previous experience of lahars, and destroyed a crucial road in the process. The loss of this road now means that communities are isolated from their villages – making evacuation in the event of a large eruption very difficult. The lahar deposits include a range of particle sizes, from fine sediment to huge boulders. As such driving across them is far from straightforward.

Lahars themselves are very dangerous, and have been responsible for major fatalities around the world in the past. They also trigger further hazards (e.g. flooding) downstream. In this location, they have significantly increased the vulnerability of an already vulnerable community. When the next large eruption takes place, people will need to evacuate. Many won’t and many won’t be able to. Those who try are going to face the additional significant difficulty of trying to cross lahar material. If this was in the middle of rainy season, any attempt to do so would almost certainly be impossible or perhaps fatal. People could try finding another route, but in a large vulcanian eruption the volume of ash means it can be very difficult to see more than 1-2m in front of you. Attempts to evacuate by routes other than those closest would be difficult. In one other location around this volcano, evacuation is only possible via a narrow rope bridge.

Seeing this location, and talking to people about it during my research interviews afterwards, was really sad. Seeing the genuine desire of people to help, a real heart-felt concern – but an inability to do anything due to an all too common problem of lack of funding. More bridges, evacuation routes and shelters can’t be built as they cost money. Even if those were in place, poverty means some people may choose not to leave as they don’t want to risk losing their property or assets. Others can’t leave due to disability, illness or age.

I feel incredibly privileged to have seen Fuego by day and night, climbed close to its summit and marvelled at one of nature’s most beautiful sights. I also feel a huge weight of responsibility and a strong desire to utilise the skills, the knowledge, the contacts, the resources that I have available to address some of the injustices that currently mean that a large future eruption of Fuego could result in a significant disaster event – education, an ability to evacuate safely and rapidly, a reduction in poverty, access to insurance schemes that will help people feel safer leaving their property, better monitoring equipment for the volcanic observers.

When I leave Guatemala on the morning of the 17th March I’ll be leaving with the communities around Fuego in my mind and a determination to use those resources available to me to serve them through strengthening disaster risk reduction.

Joel is the Founder/Director of Geology for Global Development (@Geo_Dev) an organisation working to support geologists to make a sustainable contribution to the fight against global poverty. He is an interdisciplinary researcher, with a PhD in geography (natural hazards), and research interests in multi-hazard frameworks, disaster risk reduction, rural water projects, and sustainable development. This work has taken him to Chile, China, Guatemala, India, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Joel is currently based at the British Geological Survey, and tweets at @JoelCGill.


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    Nice post. Fuego’s activity is a difficult risk problem for the local people and fixing the root causes will require many things to change in my country. At least they have the support of the hardworking people in INSIVUMEH and CONRED, both locally and in Guate City, who are trying to do something about it.
    I’ve spent more than a decade working with the communities, INSIVUMEH, CONRED and researchers, on the Fuego risk problem (it was my PhD topic), and it just seems so daunting. One of the main things I learned from it is that people’s choices are strongly constrained by their material, economic, social and political alternatives. E. g. under what conditions they will evacuate depends on what means they have to do it and how much they may loose to the evacuation, independently of whether there is an eruption or not. This is something that many times isn’t that obvious to the outsider. I hope to someday publish the results of those interviews and surveys.
    I’d love to hear more about what you have in mind for this project, and if there is a way I can help, I’d be glad to do so.

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    Rudiger, Thank you for these very valuable comments and the report you linked to on twitter ( which I highly recommend reading. I have been very impressed by the work of INSIVUMEH in the area and have spoken with CONRED about their work here also. As you say, they are incredibly hardworking and I have learnt so much from the time I have spent with them. It’s really interesting to hear that your PhD was devoted to the area, and I would love to hear more. It would be great to read more about the region and learn from your experience. In terms of future work, I would love to chat more with yourself about what we could do, how it may work etc. I will send you an email in a week or so, when I return to the UK. Thanks again for your valuable input.

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    Great! I’m looking forward to hear more from you! And by the way, has the road from the coast to San Andres Osuna been washed away? I was curious when that would happen. That would mean a huge detour for people who travel along that route!

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      Let me check place names with Gustavo and get back to you!

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