Geology for Global Development

Field Series

Friday Photo (113) – Wall Art in San Pablo la Laguna, Guatemala


San Pablo La Laguna is a small town on the edge of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. This wall art shows local opposition to mining activities. At the time of writing I’m not sure about the background context to the image, but it raises some interesting questions about  what is occurring or has occurred in this area in the past.

Credit: Joel Gill (2014)

Field Research in Guatemala (3) – Environmental Hazards at Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan (Credit: Joel Gill)

Lake Atitlan (Credit: Joel Gill)

Today Joel Gill (GfGD Founding Director) continues his live reporting from Guatemala, whilst undertaking interdisciplinary field research relating to natural hazards 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

Lake Atitlan is a beautiful location, created by a significant volcanic eruption around 85,000 years ago. As large amounts of volcanic material was erupted, the surface load became too great and it collapsed inwards, creating a depression known as a caldera. This depression soon filled with water, and three new volcanoes developed: San Pedro (believed extinct), Toliman (believed dormant) and Atitlan (active/dormant). These processes have created a dynamic and beautiful landscape, creating a location popular with international and Guatemalan tourists today.

Lake Atitlan (Credit: Joel Gill)

Lake Atitlan (Credit: Joel Gill)

As idyllic as the images above look, however, there are a range of environmental hazards currently impacting this region. Guatemala is susceptible to many natural hazards (hence me being here!), including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and geotechnical failure. There are though some unusual hazards around Atitlan that are disrupting the lives of local communities.

There is a limited scientific literature on these hazards around Lake Atitlan (with much more work to be done). What I have found very interesting, however, is the amount of information that I have been able to gather through informal interviews with those who have lived there for decades (including the information passed down by their parents and grandparents) and the differences in ideas, reasoning and understanding conveyed. It is the information from these conversations that I’ve noted below and focused this article on. A few simple discussions with people who have observed change around them can enhance the design of research and formation of hypotheses. I’d definitely recommend interested individuals explore what has been written in the published literature to complement the ‘stories’ outlined below:

Rising Waters of Lake Atitlan (Credit: Joel Gill)

Rising Waters of Lake Atitlan (Credit: Joel Gill)

Rising Waters in Lake Atitlan

The first issue, evident to anybody visiting the area, is the rising water inundating houses close to the shoreline. Through a series of interviews it was suggested that the water has a cyclical rise and fall (with the last high about 50 years ago), and has been doing so for as long as people have a collective memory. This understanding has benefited many of those whose families have lived around the lake for generations, they have chosen to build their properties up the slopes and away from the shore. Many tourists, however, have constructed bars, cafes and hotels close to the lake edge and found out the hard way over the past few years why this is not always a good idea.

What reasons did people put forward as to why this was happening? Although my interviews were not extensive, not once did anybody mention the possibility of it being related to volcanic activity in the area (which the Lonely Planet guide suggests is a ‘more authoritative theory’). Instead opinion centred on two key factors (i) an increase in sediment entering the lake (due to deforestation, landsliding, and agriculture), and (ii) the interaction between the lake water and groundwater. The two theories are indeed linked, with the idea that increased sedimentation blocks the fractures that allow natural drainage out of the lake into groundwater aquifers (the only major output of water). Further evidence of this relationship comes from the significant drop in lake level after the 1976 earthquake, likely due to new fractures opening up facilitating drainage.

(As a side note, it is interesting that the Lonely Planet promotes the volcanic theory as being an authoritative explanation, I’m struggling to find any published material on this theory – so do leave a link to a paper if you come across one!)

Cyanobacterial Blooms

A second significant issue in the region is the relatively recent development of an annual cyanobacterial film across the lake. Those I was interviewing suggested this happened almost always in October (the end of rainy season), and had occurred annually for the past 3-5 years (there is published work suggested an initial bloom was observed in 2008 and a larger one in 2009). They also noted that prior to this, they remember the lake being very clean and not seeing such pollution. In their opinion the bloom was linked with a decrease in fish, as well as negative impacts on human health.

The cause of the bloom was attributed by some interviewees to a sharp increase in motor boats on the lake, with the resulting oil/petrol input generating the bloom. This contrasts with some of the literature that is worth exploring a bit more. Global Nature named Lake Atitlan the ‘most threatened lake of the year’ in 2009 because of the bloom. In their report they note the sudden increase in raw sewage entering the lake after a treatment plan was destroyed during Hurricane Stan. They also note a big problem with litter and uncontrolled waste deposition in the area. Waste leachate, agricultural fertilisers and sewage enter the lake, and promote the development of cyanobacteria through the process of eutrophication. It is interesting to note the much broader, holistic explanation of the blooms (incorporating multiple facets) given by the conservation agencies and academics – in contrast with the ‘single-point’ causes often raised by individuals.

Some Reflections

Interviewing prior to starting research can be a fascinating (at times difficult) thing to do. It often raises more questions than it answers, and it can only ever be part of an investigation into something such as an environmental hazard. It is, however, a very valuable use of time and effort. Through these introductory interviews I learnt information I couldn’t find anywhere else, developed a set of questions to ask other people and had some thoroughly enjoyable discussions centred around applied geoscience that helped to promote sustainability and hazards education.

The example of the cyanobacteria in particular highlights the room for more public education and the limitations of just relying on non-expert interviews, good scientific fieldwork and analysis is also required. However, the latter things are normally our strengths as geologists and the interviewing a rarely practised skill. There is so much to gain from an informal interview process – especially when in a context, setting and culture that is new. It can be a powerful tool for education and understanding, in both directions (researcher-interviewee).

Friday Photo (112) – Volcano San Pedro, Guatemala


Volcanoes at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

In the foreground is the volcano San Pedro, on the south-western shore of Lake Atitlan. San Pedro (approx 3000m) is believed to be extinct, but Atitlan (in the background is dormant).

Credit: Joel Gill, Geology for Global Development (2014)

Field Research in Guatemala (2) – Observing and Understanding Place

Over the next couple of months, Joel Gill (GfGD Founding Director) will be reporting live from Guatemala, whilst undertaking interdisciplinary field research relating to natural hazards 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

Lago De Atitlan, Guatemala (Credit: Joel Gill)

Lago De Atitlan, Guatemala (Credit: Joel Gill)

One of the first things I want to do when arriving in a new country (other than sleep and shower after 20 hours on planes) is explore my surroundings. Being able to picture the streets, the shops, the people, the food and the topography immediately helps you to feel more at ease, imagine what lies ahead over the course of the research, and starts to satisfy the huge curiosity that builds during months of preparatory reading and googling.

There is much to see here. Guatemala has incredible landscapes, dynamic volcanoes, stunning lakes (one of which I’m sat next to now, sipping Guatemala coffee) and mountains rich in forest. It is also a place with incredible colours – the materials, the street markets, even many of the buses are a multi-coloured beauty. Observation is not a difficult thing to do in Guatemala (it is also a very enjoyable thing to do), but to really understand my location there is much more I have to do.

Let me set out a little of why understanding place, and the context of a location is important for geoscientists. There is of course, the obvious understanding of landscape – why it looks as it does. Fieldwork, geological mapping, reading the literature all can help inform aspects of the ‘why?’. For many geoscientists this is where we stop. This is the information we need, and it answers our research questions. Alternatively, there are aspects of place relating to history, politics, culture and society that are rarely relevant to our practice and research objectives – or are they?

On the surface it would seem that I don’t need to understand much about the culture of Guatemala in order to do research on tectonic processes here, or the mineralogy of lavas. In reality, however, a basic understanding of culture, history and sensitivities can avoid frustration, misunderstandings and causing offence. When trying to collect data or map you will need access to land, resources and local knowledge.

It is also essential to understanding how to disseminate information to those that need to know it. Communication can be incredibly difficult across cultures. It is a lot more than just a different language (i.e. if I can speak Spanish I will not be able to disseminate just as easily as if I was in the UK?). Differences in what meaning cultures place on aspects of society and life, on religions and practices, all hinder communication. Methods of learning, of knowledge going from being heard to being understood and acted upon can also be very different across cultures (and even within cultures).

SAM_3718So my exploring of a place needs to start in a library (and of course, via google, local museums and talking with others). The quality of my research can only be enhanced by taking the time to read about Guatemala’s history, culture and politics. Learning to observe AND understand in physical geography/geology/earth science is what we are trained to do. Developing the ability to observe and understand culture and society rarely makes it into our syllabuses. This gives geographers (as hard as this may be to admit!) a great advantage. There is no reason, however, why this understanding cannot be emphasised more within our geology courses as well. It is essential for high-quality engagement and dissemination, be that on water, mining, engineering geology or hazards based work.

We started learning this kind of approach at secondary school in both geography and geology courses (why do people still live on volcanoes/landslide-prone slopes, even though they are dangerous? – or in more technical language, what drives communities to tolerate a greater degree of risk than perhaps I would currently accept?). We should continue to pursue this interdisciplinary approach to our work, ensuring that our results, engagement and dissemination reach their full potential through understanding (and not just observing) the history/culture of the location we are working within.