Geology for Global Development


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).

Guest Blog: Chris Phillips of MapAction Visits GfGD Oxford

Ana OxfordAna Heureux (GfGD Ambassador, Oxford) writes about a recent talk to the Oxford GfGD University Group. Chris Phillips came to Oxford on November 5th and gave the first talk of the academic year, talking about his work with MapAction.


Image 1 - Chris

Credit: MapAction

Between work at the Ordnance Survey, travelling and volunteering for MapAction and travelling for pleasure, Chris
Phillips keeps himself busy. When Chris arrived at the Earth Sciences department at Oxford University, he was fresh off the plane from a trip to France, had finished a deployment in Khartoum (Sudan) a few weeks before, and would be off again to Cape Town (South Africa) by the end of the week. But when I met Chris in the atrium he didn’t seem jet-lagged, he was enthusiastic as ever to be in Oxford and to talk to us about his work with MapAction. Chris and I had time for a coffee before the talk started so I got to learn a bit more about MapAction and the role Chris plays for them.

When I first asked Chris what it was like volunteering for MapAction, he summed it up very well with the response, “You have to be the type of person and have the type of job that if you got a call one day and the voice on the other line says ‘There’s a disaster, can you be in Kenya tomorrow morning?’ you don’t hesitate to say yes.”

MapAction is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) made up of volunteers with expertise in geographical information systems (GIS) and specially trained in disaster response. MapAction is unique because due to the flexibility of the volunteers and its affiliation with the United Nations, it is the only charitable organisation that can deploy mapping resources around the world within hours or days of an event.

Image 2 - Office

MapAction Office (Credit: MapAction)

My next question for Chris was, what happens after the initial deployment? What happens once you are on the ground? Chris started by explaining that every single mission is different and part of the challenge is knowing how to adapt. But one thing that is always the same is that once they are on the ground, they start making maps. MapAction produces maps of all kinds and as quickly as possible because they are picked up as fast as they can print them. Chris went on to explain that when the MapAction team arrives, it is never very long until they set up camp and get to work. And I got the impression that once they started work, they didn’t stop until their computers were too dusty and hot to turn on, their printers refused to print another page or until the team could hand over the project to the other disaster relief teams on the ground. Chris gave an example of a deployment where their printer actually caught fire, but that didn’t seem to stop the MapAction team.

Later during his talk, Chris explained the type of maps that MapAction typically provides. The purpose of their maps, he said, are to let all of the other aid workers and people in the area know “who is doing what and where.” If MapAction can provide a spatial understanding of what is going on, where the people are and where the resources are, they have done their job. Chris listed the four essential requirements for disaster victims: food, water, shelter and medicine.  There are, of course, a number of other necessary components of disaster survival, but he said they always start there. MapAction produces daily and sometimes hourly maps, constantly updating and revising them, of these essential human needs from the start of the disaster.

Image 3 - Map

A typical MapAction output from Paraguay (Credit: MapAction)

Chris made us all think about the role that maps play in disaster management. When thinking about mediating the effects of a disaster, one might immediately think about the need for food, water, shelter, but not necessarily think about how that need is satisfied. How do we get food to the people who need it? How can we build camps in the most useful places? How can we access existing sources of food/water? And the answer is always maps.  Disaster management needs maps to bring supply and demand together. Without maps, providing resources during a disaster can help, but only with maps can needs be met as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Chris gave the example of an aid worker coming back to MapAction with information about a camp in Haiti, but when asked about the location, he had not kept a record. In this case, there was nothing they could do with the information and information is key. Chris’s talk provided great insight into how MapAction has filled the important role of putting coordinates to key components of disaster risk and management.

To learn more or to make a donation to MapAction, visit their website at

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in learning more about the application of GIS to natural hazard events – the Department of Geography, King’s College London, are hosting a free talk on Friday 22nd November 2013 (5.15-6.45pm) entitled Geographical Information Systems for Natural Hazards Preparedness and Response.The talk will include presentations by Dr Richard Teeuw (Portsmouth) and Matthew Hogan (London Resilience Network). To submit your interest (and help the organisers prepare) please add your details here – 

Guest Blog: Holes, Hazards and Honey

Tim (Oxford)Tim Middleton, GfGD Advocacy Officer, interviews Dr. Andrew Longley, Director of the Nicaragua-based NGO Nuevas Esperanzas.

It’s a warm June day, so I suggest that we sit outside. We take our coffees onto the rooftop terrace and admire the view across Oxford. Before long, however, Andrew is zipping up his fleece and starting to shiver; he’s used to the rather warmer climate in Nicaragua. In fact, his home city of León is twinned with Oxford—a partnership which has given rise to the Oxford León Association—so our meeting place feels particularly apt. Andrew spends most of the year in Nicaragua running the NGO Nuevas Esperanzas, and only comes back to the UK for a month or two each summer.

So how did you end up running an NGO, I ask—was this always the plan? “The obvious seed was planted when I was an undergraduate here in Oxford,” he recalls, “I volunteered with Tearfund, in what was then Zaire, between my first and second years.” After his undergraduate degree, Andrew moved to the University of East Anglia to complete a PhD on carbonate sedimentology. “It was really a bit of a distraction,” he muses. He then proceeded to a Masters degree in hydrogeology at Newcastle, a position at the Environment Agency working on water resources for London, and finally a job with Atkins consulting on groundwater modelling. “Throughout this time,” says Andrew, “I knew this wasn’t fundamentally what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to ‘dig holes in Africa’, but I just needed the money.” In total, it took Andrew more than a decade to find his way back to the development work that he really wanted to do; patience is definitely a necessary virtue for this kind of work.


Laying water pipes in El Caracol for one of Nuevas Esperanzas’ water projects

How did you finally make the jump? “At first, I took unpaid leave in order to spend two months in Nicaragua,” says Andrew. Before long, two months turned into two years spent volunteering with a large NGO; two years then turned into a permanent move. “I didn’t go there with the intention of starting an NGO,” he remembers, “but when the one I was working for pulled out of the country I became disillusioned with the whole thing.” Andrew’s past experiences prompt him to talk candidly about the development sector as a whole: “Ninety percent of what I see done in the name of charity is probably unhelpful—yet so many of the mistakes are avoidable. Finding an academic who speaks highly of NGOs can often be hard.” He continues: “I never lost faith in what we were trying to do, just in how it was being done—I felt I had a lot of unfinished business.” So it was, in 2005, that Nuevas Esperanzas—which translates as ‘New Hope’—was born.

The organisation works primarily in a group of fifteen rural communities in the western half of the country. With his background in hydrogeology Andrew has been able to provide considerable assistance with water projects, especially when arsenic was discovered in the local groundwater. However, Andrew is very keen that Nuevas Esperanzas should work not just on water, but on “integrated rural development”, a maxim that has lead him to embrace everything from road-building to exporting honey. He also employs primarily Nicaraguan staff. Furthermore, as a resident of the city of León, a Spanish speaker, and a geologist, Andrew’s expertise has been much sought after during recent disasters, providing advice during both the 2011 eruption of the nearby Telica volcano and Hurricane Felix in 2007. “Next year,” Andrew tells me, “I’m planning to take a sabbatical. I want to take time to reflect on my experience and, hopefully, write a book.”


Andrew in front of Telica volcano during its eruption in 2011

In the mean time, though, Nuevas Esperanzas is able to offer the opportunity to gain experience working in Nicaragua. “We’re not a volunteer-driven organisation,” warns Andrew, “and we’re not trying to create a volunteer organisation.” That said, Andrew is keen for people to learn alongside his Nicaraguan staff. More information is available here:


Interview: Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

Jonathan Amos has been working as a science specialist for the BBC since 1994, and has won major awards for his online science reporting. He attended the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2013 to write about the latest geoscience research and we saw some really popular stories emerging as a result of his reporting. 

We spoke to Jonathan about science communication.

Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent, chats to GfGD about communication


Should scientists leave science communication to the communication experts?

“No, absolutely not. Scientists do need to get out there and communicate their work to the general public.

“You can’t expect scientists to do all of the research and all of the communication, it’s asking a lot of them, but they are the best people to explain the work they do, if they can. They can use communicators to help them get a message across.

“In the UK a lot of grant application come with the proviso that people get out there and talk about their work, which I think is absolutely right. At the end of the day we are all being funded by tax payers.

But don’t you think that bad science communication can do more harm than good?

“It can go wrong, there’s no question of that. There are people here (at EGU 2013) who are poor at communicating, even to people within their own field. I’ve seen posters that are a complete mass of calculations, and you think, there is no way that work will have impact. The same rules apply to anybody that gets up and speaks in front of people.”


When you are sitting in talks at a conference, what makes you think ‘this could make a good story’?

“I look for a narrative. It could be a fact, a picture or a quote. Something that you can build a narrative around. It’s got to be obvious.

So if the scientist makes it easier to turn their research into a story, you’re more likely to write about it.

“Yes, essentially.”

Do you get most of your stories from press conferences? Is this the best way for journalists to find out about the latest research?

“It’s a mix. The organising body will talk to the different session convenors and ask ‘what’s interesting, new or topical’ and they will make suggestions. It may be new results, or an area that’s hot.

You do see the same topics again and again, and other fields are overlooked.

“Rockets and dinosaurs are what kids like when they grow up, it stays with them and it gets them into science. Different things come into vogue. Stem cells were very new in the late ’90s – all scientists wanted to write about them. The topic has now lost some of that freshness. Climate is another one, it was very hot in the 2000’s, but that has now gone over the crest of the rise, despite being a hugely important subject.  Particle physics is hot at the minute, and physicists are riding the crest of the wave, but the water will thin out for them and we’ll move onto the next topic.

So you have to be adaptable as a journalist.



What level of understanding of scientific principles and statistics do you think somebody needs to be a good science correspondent?

“When I didn’t have any qualifications, I thought that this would be a bar to me being a science correspondent. Having gone and got some qualifications, I now have a slightly different view. Just because you’ve done a PhD on the hind leg of a locust, that doesn’t mean you can write about particle physics. Some of the very best science correspondents I know have an arts background. It’s not about what you know but the questions you ask. Remember that the people you are writing for have even less knowledge than you do about particular subjects. It doesn’t matter how well you understand the topic if you can’t explain it to people.

“In my twenties I had virtually no science education, and I then went right up to degree level. Through this process I discovered that past first year degree level, you already have enough knowledge. It’s best to be broad rather than deep. You have to write about a locust one day, and the higgs boson the next.

“Although having a science background can be an advantage as you are able to join the dots between certain facts and put things into context. You can see why some things are more important than others.

Do you ever get it wrong? Do you publish a story and then realise you misunderstood the science?

“Everyone makes mistakes, the trick is to make as few as possible.

“A press release will be viewed by many people multiple times, but in a news room it all happens too quickly for that. After you get the first reports, the information evolves. The public often misunderstand how information is processed. They think that when an article appears that that information has come down on a tablet of stone. It doesn’t work like that.”


And finally, if the BBC were looking to recruit a new science correspondent, what would you look for in an application?

“I administer an internship, and what I want to see is a passion for communicating. There are some people whose lives are on rails, you can see that this is what they’ve always wanted to do and they’ve pursued it and not let anything get in the way.  Those are the people that really impress me. They also have to be able to write, clearly. Some people are natural communicators, but some also have a passion to do it, and those are the people you are after.

“Every university is its own publishing house now. They used to post out press releases to journalists 10-15 years ago and now you can find them all online. Bloggers are just journalists without the qualifications that some of us journalists have.

“In the science community there are some very, very good communicators, and those sciences where those people exist should make more of them.”


At Geology for Global Development we encourage geoscientists to develop the skills needed to communicate their research to the public, and particularly to relevant charities and non-governmental organisations. We believe that if you are going to learn something new and exciting about a particular volcano, for example, then it is important that the people living near that volcano can benefit from your findings. 

We are grateful to Jonathan Amos for his insight into the world of science journalism, and hope that it will benefit our readers; both those aspiring towards a career in science communication and academics that want to improve their ability to communicate their own research.