Geology for Global Development


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.

Field Research in Guatemala (1) – Introduction

Joel Gill 1Over 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 at King’s College LondonToday Joel gives an introduction to his research and why he is focusing on the Central American country of Guatemala… 

Many assessments of natural hazard potential treat natural hazards as discrete or independent events. An examination of multiple case studies and a broad range of hazards literature suggests that this is not always appropriate. Initial results of research that I have conducted at King’s College London (KCL) with Professor Bruce Malamud, identify a broad range of natural hazard interactions (more than 90 interactions, across 21 different natural hazards, paper in review). This discrepancy between observed reality and the modelling of hazard potential could result in an underestimation of risk or a distortion of management priorities.

Research Aims

My interdisciplinary PhD research therefore, aims to develop and improve multi-hazard approaches to assessing hazard potential, through increasing our understanding and characterisation of natural hazard interactions (e.g., an earthquake triggering landslides) and networks of interactions (e.g., an earthquake triggering landslides, which trigger flooding, which trigger further landslides) at global and local scales.

The fieldwork component of this work aims to explore, quantify and contrast hazard interaction networks developed from understandings and data populating contrasting knowledge worlds. In other words, what differences are there in the understanding of hazard interactions between hazard professionals and local community groups? What implications do these contrasts have on hazard monitoring, policy and research priorities? Feedback  will also be gathered to enhance a series of visualisations developed in earlier stages of this work, and designed for end-user stakeholders.

Guatemala (Public Domain)

Guatemala (Public Domain)

Why Guatemala?

Guatemala is a country prone to multiple natural and environmental hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, droughts, ground collapse, tropical storms and hurricanes, significant temperature variations, wildfires and impact events. Furthermore, development places a number of stresses on the natural environment (including deforestation and urbanisation). These stresses have been documented to exacerbate a range of natural hazards in the area (e.g., deforestation exacerbating landslides during Hurricane Mitch, or road cuttings increasing landslides after an earthquake in 2012).

The existence of a broad range of natural hazards alone is not sufficient for this study. In addition to this, we are interested in the spatial overlap of natural hazards and the interactions between them. Multiple case studies have been recorded of hazard interaction networks in Guatemala, with triggering, increased probability and synergistic hazard relationships all featured.

This combination of factors make Guatemala an ideal country to examine the existence of hazard interactions and the understanding of such processes by key stakeholders. I will be travelling there from January 16th until March 17th.

What kind of work will you be doing?

Over the two months I will be in Guatemala, I will be undertaking:

  1. A ground reconnaissance of the hazardscape (observing both natural and anthropogenic environments at multiple scales, and having discussions/semi-structured interviews with relevant stakeholders.
  2. A series of interviews and workshops with hazard professionals and local communities to assess their understanding of hazard interactions and how these understandings are developed.
  3. Personal training and development (including language training, joining MSc Volcanology students from the University of Bristol for a field course, and learning lots more about social science field methodologies).

Over the next couple of months I will try and write regularly, covering my fieldwork experiences and lessons learnt throughout different stages of the work. I’m sure I will be touching on aspects of traditional geology, hazard processes and impacts, the integration of social science techniques into field research and issues of cross-cultural communication.

You can leave questions about Joel’s preparations and experiences in the comments section below, or via Twitter (@Geo_Dev//@GillJoel).

Interview: Jeannie Scott on Sharing Your Research

Jeannie Scott did her PhD at the University of Oxford on the Santiago volcano in Guatemala. She made some interesting findings, and has spent time translating her research into a format that is accessible to people with no scientific background. She also explains what her research findings mean for the people that live and work close to the volcano. Jeannie has produced both a poster and a booklet that are freely available to the public online.
You can download the booklet at

The Santiago volcano erupting in February 2009. Taken by Jeannie Scott

We caught up with Jeannie to chat about her work:

Hi Jeannie. Thanks for agreeing to talk to GfGD about your efforts to share your research with the public. To start off, could you tell us a bit about the research you did for your PhD – what were the key findings?

My PhD project focused on the rocks erupted by Santiaguito volcano (Guatemala). Because there had been very little previous research, I started by classifying the rocks and identifying the minerals present. Once I got past those basics, the key findings were that magma evolves in a storage zone in the mid- to lower crust, that magma rigidifies just before it emerges onto the surface, and that erupting lava has been getting gradually less evolved over Santiaguito’s lifetime.

How could this work contribute to future disaster risk reduction?

The results can be used to tailor monitoring efforts to suit this particular volcano – for instance, to allow for the deep magma storage zone and long magma ascent path. I also hope that the work will raise awareness of Santiaguito, in the scientific community and beyond. More research is needed if we want to understand this volcano, but support from outside academia – political, financial, and technical support – is also needed to help the volcano observers properly monitor Santiaguito, and to help the local community to increase their resilience to volcanic hazards.

You have made a great attempt to communicate your research outside of academic journals. Who are your target audience?

My target audience is anyone with an interest in Santiaguito. When I began writing, I wanted it to be something that the volcano observers and civil defence workers could use to inform and educate people; it had to be easy for non-scientists to read, explain the science for those who would be interested, and make the importance of volcano monitoring and community disaster preparedness clear to every reader. As the booklet took shape, I realised that scientists would probably be interested in it too, because it’s easier to read and more complete than my research papers. I did the poster version for people who might want a shorter, more visual format with less science. 

How are you making sure that this work is seen by the right people?

Making sure the right people see this work hasn’t been straightforward. I’ve used emailing lists where possible, and I did persuade a couple of influential Twitter users to post a link to the booklet, but I have had to email a lot of people and organizations directly, which has taken time and effort. I am a bit worried that I’ve forgotten someone important! I’m sure some of my emails just got deleted, but I know that other people have been passing the links on to their colleagues and friends or even posting them on other websites, so I didn’t have to do all the work myself.

Did you face any difficulties when translating your thesis into simple language?

I have to translate things into simple language so that I can understand them myself, so writing this booklet was easier for me than writing complex research papers! The hardest thing was leaving out things that were fascinating to me, but wouldn’t have interested anyone else. I did have to delete a lot.

What advice would you give to other geoscientists hoping to communicate their research findings to a wider audience?

My advice is for other geoscientists is do what you can – it isn’t easy, but it is worth it. In my case, my funding covered my research and writing my papers and thesis, but not writing this booklet (or poster). I had to take an administrative job, and wrote the booklet in my spare time. But my research is in the public domain now in a way that never would have happened through scientific journals alone. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that my research is going to be really useful to a lot of different people and organizations; that was always my main reason for doing the research in the first place.

And finally, what next for you?

The response I’ve had to the booklet and poster has been incredibly positive, and it has convinced me that it’s really important to make science available to the non-scientists who really need it (and to anyone else who’s interested). So, I plan to spend the next few months producing some more examples of accessible science, with the help and permission of the original researchers, and looking at what formats work best for non-scientists, e.g. booklet, factsheet, poster, etc. I also want to investigate how self-edited, self-published work can retain it’s integrity, and what can be done to make it easier for geoscientists to make their research accessible to all.

I plan to do more geological research in the future, and I will be putting together some funding applications over the next year or so. I like the idea of creating research opportunities for myself because I have rather specific ideas about the projects I want to do!

It’s great to see good science communication in action. Thanks for talking to us!