The hot and humid summer in Colima, Mexico is strengthened with daily thunderstorms that arrive in a timely fashion. By 4 p.m., rainwater is running down the streets while rowdy thunders roar up in the clouds. The event usually takes a couple of hours and leaves clear skies with a delightful view of Volcán de Fuego de Colima to the north. This volcano stands less than 20 miles away from town still restless after the explosions that took place earlier this year. And, unsurprisingly for many of those who know me at Whitman, it is the reason I am here.
I am Gustavo Béjar López, a rising senior Geology major. During this summer, I am working at Colima Exchange and Internship in Volcanology (CIIV), a volunteer/internship center in Universidad de Colima that studies Volcán de Fuego de Colima. This program allows students from all over the world to put our hands on the logistics and science behind volcano monitoring. I have shared a lab room and time in the field with fellow undergraduate and graduate students from the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, and unexpectedly, an old friend from back home in Ecuador. Our duties are split between field trips around the volcano and data analysis while staying in town.
Thermal and gas monitoring, spring water sampling, field measurements, etc. You name it. There is always a reason to go to the field. In fact, this is the most exciting part of the whole experience and a good way to have our field skills refined. As professor Herbert Harold Read said in 1940: “The best geologist is (the one) who has seen the most rocks”.
A normal day in the field starts at our lab. After some quick planning, we get ready to leave towards the avocado plantation called “El Guardián” on the outskirts of the volcano. From there, we have a strategic view of the volcano at just 5 mi from the crater within the high-risk area. But chill, Colima’s only external activity are the fumaroles located in the crater and explosions have not been reported since last April. At “El Guardián” we set up our thermal camera and SO2 sensor and wait while the equipment gathers the data we need. The team is split up and some of us head over to the ranches in the valley below the avocado farm. After several hours of hiking we arrive to the lava flows we need to confirm its existence. Once the flow is sampled and the mapping verified, we head back to “El Guardián”. On other days, we go around the volcano in search of the springs we must sample or drive up to the Montegrande ravine at 2300 m.a.s.l. where deposits from recent pyroclastic density currents (a.k.a. pyroclastic flows) are waiting to be described and sampled.
Sometimes, camping and drenching in the rain is necessary. This usually makes field trips harder, especially when talking about accessibility. Fortunately, the star of CIIV allows us to get (almost) anywhere. A concerningly old 4-wheel drive Toyota Tacoma from 1995 makes its way through the pools that are left along the dirt road after the rain with relative ease. After dealing with the old family vehicles in Ecuador, driving the pick-up truck is not much of an issue. Sadly, undergoing repair is customary for the truck. By the time I am writing this, the truck has spent almost three weeks at the workshop. I am sure this is just a little setback for the truck that will be ready to roll in the next days.
If we are not hiking or driving, we are flying. Working at CIIV also requires us to get our cameras ready (including thermal) and hop on the Cessna aircraft that will take us right above the crater. The volcano that once rose in front of us as a giant looks smaller from the sky. We manage to get the best shots from above and get the pictures back to the lab for some modelling. Back in the lab we do a little of everything. Photogrammetry for the last flight was my main duty. I constructed a 3-D model of the crater based on the photographs. This is important to understand how the crater is deforming compared to models from previous flights making estimates of volumetric changes at the summit of the volcano. Classifying seismic events in the volcano is another of my jobs. At the end, this information enables us to better understand how the volcano behaves. This improves the ways scientists in Mexico get ready for new events that could threat dwellers around Volcán de Fuego.
Colima, however, is not the only volcano I am here to see. I will be working at Ceboruco, an active volcano in the state of Nayarit. Indeed, my senior thesis will explain the processes during magma ascent that led to its last eruption in 1870. Ceboruco, along with Colima and Isla Socorro in the Pacific Ocean, is one the three volcanoes on which CIIV bases most of its research efforts. Additionally, I got to see Paricutín, a small cinder cone born in 1943 that went extinct 9 years later. Steam is still emanating from the volcanic landscape of Paricutín where rainwater percolates and vaporizes in the remnant heat under the surface. Finally, there is Volcán de Tequila, where I learnt that the name of the famous spirit comes originally from the indigenous word for obsidian: teh-koo-eeh-lah means “cutting rock” in Nahuatl.
My experience at CIIV is coming to an end in a little more than two weeks and would not be possible without funding from the Student Engagement Center through its International Whitman Internship Grant. I have gained a lot of knowledge in volcanology, learnt new techniques in monitoring, and enjoyed my time in the field. Moreover, I have faced the rewards and challenges of doing research in places where scientific funding is not a priority.
I do not want to reduce this experience to a mere scientific opportunity. Besides learning a lot about volcanology, I gained a broader view of Mexico by being exposed to its culture. I observed the commonalities between Mexican and Ecuadorian people for whom life by a volcano is necessary. I felt welcomed by the people of Colima, the family that used to have me over for dinners and the local friends who took me to the beaches of Manzanillo for weekend trips. And I learnt that, even though Ecuador and Mexico are culturally very similar, some common words from Ecuadorian Spanish should never be spoken loudly out here.
Experiences like Gustavo Béjar López’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez