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Field work with Nature Live

7 Posts tagged with the popocatepetl tag
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It was only a matter of time: yesterday morning CENAPRED (Mexico's National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters) raised the alert level on Popo from yellow phase 2 to 3. This is the third highest warning on the seven step scale.

 

The Mexican newspaper, La Jornada reported almost a week of 'high amplitude tremors, with persistent emission of ash and gas that reached over 3.5m above the crater.' Incandescent fragments rising up to a kilometre high issue from Popo at present, where our team stood 5,000m up back in February. I ponder this as I type to you from the safety of the terracotta 'womb' of our beloved Museum.

 

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Popo during quieter times in February. Dave, Chiara and Hugo survey their impending climb.

 

Who best to contact than Chiara, who knows more than most about the psychology of this restless giant? Following the recent activity of volcanic tremors and earthquakes she explained that, 'In the last couple of weeks, the dome has been destroyed. The caldera [a cauldron like feature, formed by the land collapsing after an eruption] is full to the brim and the fear is that lava may begin to flow outside the rim.'

 

There are currently no plans to evacuate but she said, ' The area within which you cannot go has been extended. At least until we know which of the two scenarios will now happen.'  By this, Chiara refers to Popo returning to a normal level of activity or continuing this temptestuous episode.

 

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A letter to Popo. If you're going to erupt, don't do it without me. 

 

'It's very hard to tell what will happen at the moment. Popo is a very dangerous volcano.' It's here that despite being on the telephone in another part of the Museum, I sense that smile crossing her lips. The one I remember from our fieldwork in Mexico in February. ' I sent an article about this to Dave last week,' she continues, 'I told him what we need to do right now. Is to go back ...'

 

Watch this space to see how things develop!

 

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It's taken a while for me to get back into the swing of things after my return to London, but at long last here's what happened on the last few, hectic days in Mexico, which included one last day in the field to collect our final samples:

 

A 05:00 start was a harsh way to take on the most challenging climb of the trip but by then Chiara and Dave were ready. Although as they trooped out to the jeep, heavy limbed, it was hard to discern that they knew it. Your devoted reporter remained on the bench in Amecameca on the basis of a four-only-in-the-jeep rule; jealous of the landscapes the rest of Team Popo would see and the last chance at such physical endeavour.

 

I wanted to leave town exhausted but I'd just have to leave educated and elated instead. On writing and curation duties, I was to source rock-packing materials, a somewhat vital task, so was spurred on in the role. In preparation, I demolished huevos rancheros and set off with the sun on my face, a less than ideal command of the language and immense purpose.

 

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Forget what you know about eating fried eggs, tortillas, cream and green chilli sauce at different times.

 

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When riding other animals, it's customary to do it contraflow to heavy traffic. 

 

My insight into the last day of scientific field work on Popo came as the team arrived back at base early in the evening. They looked at the peak of their exhaustion. We dined quietly but when asked how the day went, Dave gave a dazzling smile and explained how in his element he was. 'Where did your energy come from?' I asked. 'I don't know, he replied. It was some kind of euphoria. I just kept on going, following my body rhythms.'

 

Reaching their highest altitude yet of 4,474m, Chiara too had a strong final day in the field. She described how for her, Hugo had set the pace and by 'making small footsteps in his wake', she could maintain the energy to make it. 'Without Hugo, I would have failed,' she said, with what's become her trademark grin and shrug of the shoulders. 

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Hugo: Two steps ahead and a dab hand with a 5kg mallet. He's a field work essential.

 

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Popo: Quietly cultivating a 50-a-day smoking habit.

 

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Beautiful Monarchs converge on an outcrop.

 

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I'll name that layer in one.


Chiara's research will very much depend on the data she generates once she's tested these samples back at the Museum. However, as the week progressed it's clear Dave can already see how his work here will enhance the Museum's collections. The Popo samples from this trip will have context of the type he rarely sees in the collection, with his photographs and field sketches giving an exact visual of the make-up of each outcrop.

 

This, along with the GPS and field notes places the sample more firmly at it's location and - to fully understand Popo - this helps immensely. 'It was also great to get back into making sketches,' he says. 'To be here to collect from the source is invaluable. I have much more to information to offer those wanting to use these collections now.'

 

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Dave tells me his drawings have been 'enhanced' by years of doodling with his two kids.


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Local dining requires rapid response paperware.... In truth, our visit to procure more packaging for the specimens.

 

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Amecameca prepares for a two week festival as we depart (a coincidence?)

 

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I don't know what he's selling but I want one.

 

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Lost Highway: Laden with rocks, Dave and Chiara's taxi takes ten wrong turns too many. Mostly to the right.

 

If any of you have seen the film, The Canonball Run, you will have some insight into the way Mexican highways and byways work. As Chiara and Dave's taxi heads for Mexico City and the beginning of our journey home, we spot a car boot full of people with their legs sticking out, the vehicle swerving between traffic. My palms begin to sweat at the sight.

 

The 90 minute journey extends to a joyful five hours as the taxi gets lost and our Sat Nav diverts us to the more 'exhilarating' - i.e. terrifying - parts of town. A lifetime later, we've booked into our hotel and hit the streets of the busiest city I've ever been to and spend the evening re-living the highs and lows of the trip. The sheer volume of people traffic serves only to remind us of the dangers of Popo, a mere 70 kilometres away. It also makes me think of how vital Chiara's research could one day be in predicting their safety.

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Day five and we see a split in the team. The public engagement crew are town-bound due to our scientists traversing dangerous terrain at heights they've never been to before. I see the logic but I miss the buzz of the hike and reporting back first-hand. We travel as far as Tlamacas wth them at 06:00, me in the jeep asking them questions from UK students that are being relayed to me via phone, and all the while I'm eating a cheese and chilli sandwich. We're all tired but Dave and Chiara's day will push this exhaustion to its limit.

 

Still, it's vital to record their day for your good selves so I instruct Dave to take many photos, which you'll discover he was rather good at.

 

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Popo, you never take a bad picture.

 

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Rocky V: The return of the rugged outcrop. Actually, kinda like Stallone's face these days.

 

Chiara, Dave and Hugo cross a steep section of rocks roughly 30cm x 2m across, zig-zagging all the way. This in itself is tough going, those lungs in constant need of oxygen. But they're faced with an even steeper incline of pumice and loose ash after that and Dave gently laughs at the prospect. Slipping their way up, they are rewarded with reaching the snowline. A small patch of what once covered Popo to a greater degree, only to be reduced dramatically by the change in climate.

 

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I'm fairly convinced this isn't a water stop. Hugo only stops to collect rocks.

 

The altitude sickness has lost it's bite for now and both Dave and Chiara are doing well. At least Dave can see straight away when he gazes up without the second or two delay he's been experiencing. Through his renewed vision, he spots a bread-crust bomb and as he photographs they hear a muffled, loud BOOM! The first explosion from Popo and I'm not there [shakes fist at sky]... A plume of gas drifts over the ridge and Dave remembers this isn't a mountain, this is an active volcano. And he's close enough to the crater to feel fear for the first time since being here.

 

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The bread-crust bomb. Explain what it is or it'll break granny's teeth.

 

Meanwhile, I'd arranged to visit a local middle school in nearby San Pedro Nexapa to find out how the kids feel about living next door to Popocatepetl. The generous Gabriela and Gisela from the national park office had made this possible and as we turn into the gates I thank them. A sea of curious faces turn our way and I know from how they react we are in for a warm and funny visit.

 

Elsa, Marianna and Ana Paola had been chosen to speak with us and after shy introductions and a briefing that hopefully set them at ease, we set up camera. I didn't know what to expect as sometimes kids can be ambivalent to such real fears but the girls all showed it. They were more than aware from family members, the past dangers of Popo and, although very friendly, they were solemn on the subject. Marianna was particularly eloquent and agreed to appear with us on the live-link to the Museum's Attenborough Studio at 14:30 on Saturday (so check back with this blog as we hope that a recording of the event will be uploaded soon after).

 

Back to Popo and our scientists continue their climb ... the pumice under foot is 'Like standing on marbles' says Dave. Without poles? 'Nearly impossible.'

 

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Two more BOOMS makes eight in the trek so far. Chiara, Dave and Hugo reach as far as they are going to climb today - 4,630m - where they'll take their first sample. They can see the stratification (arranging of layers) of the lava flows as they dip down into the valley.

 

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Look at the strat on that.

 

The descent begins, back down to the snowline and Dave describes his footing as 'surfing the scree.' Much easier to slide down keeping the body stable than to scramble up it as he did earlier. He's keen to meet Chiara who's a little way off and make their way to the jeep after a 'cracking day.' Three or four more BOOMS in quick succession. Popo's really picking up the pace.

 

They descend further to 4,215m and feel the chill as the clouds descend. At an outcrop, they discover something new. A dark rock with really nice pink and white crystals of feldspar. Quite big crystals. They'd describe this as porphyritic and are both 'anxiously excited to find out why this rock is here and why it's different.'

 

The team made it back to base, safe and sound, despiite the frequent booms and rumbles that Popo made during their trek. Lee and I met them for dinner after a brilliantly guided visit by Gabriela to The Hacienda de Panoaya; home to a zoo, the international museum of the volcanoes, and a museum honoring Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Mexican nun and writer), who lived here during her childhood. Lee finished our visit in style with a post-lunch zipwire, crying out the word for 'mud' in Spanish to impress Gabriela with his learning.

 

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Before I tell you about another dramatic day in the field, here's a choice clip of our base town Amecameca. Lest we forget just how interconnected Popocatepetl volcano and this cool little town's residents are.

 

(This video has no sound)

 

 

Today we travel to a station in Tlamacas, 4,000m up, and on the way the subject is raised of Thursday and Friday's 5,000m climbs. 'What do we do if someone fails?' says Chiara. Hugo discusses the severity of symptoms and probability of sickness increasing with numbers. I suddenly feel the opportunity to climb slipping away. But altitude sickness is not something you can take sole responsibility for. If you get sick, the whole team is affected. So it's clear who should stay and who should go.

 

For now though, we travel together and hit the point in the road where a deep volcanic ash becomes our path forwards. 'We can drive a little further, then we walk' says Hugo. With that, our four wheel drive tries to engage it's four wheels. On our right is a drop of say 20 metres. Our back right wheel decides the latter is the route this car is taking and Hugo's passengers lose all colour in their cheeks. I bail without hesitation and we all attempt to push the car to safety, walking boots slipping ever nearer toward the drop. Purchase achieved, our lungs recover and our nerves unjangle.

 

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Getting stuck is the pastime of a true geologist.

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Where are we? It's a landscape I've never seen before, never thought existed. 'We're on the moon,' says Dave grinning.

 

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Ash, more high altitude Sacaton and mounds of alien-looking mosses. A perfect location for a 70's Bowie video.

 

The conversation stays dark like the volcanic ash we tread as Dave shows me how to grip a walking pole so as not to break my wrists if I fall. I appreciate the technique and continue the hike to the station. My heart is racing but my pace is slow. Hey altitude, nice of you to drop by again.

 

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Chiara steams ahead on a full recovery. Last one up writes the blog.

 

We're on the south west side of Popo and as we reach 4,000m Hugo needs to inform Cenapred (National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters) of our wish to collect samples. The monitoring equipment they use will pick up our hammering and - possibly - even our footsteps. Negotiations take place and we continue.

 

Hugo points out an incredible face of bi-colour lava. 'Look at the layers, says Dave. 'Shows incredible flow.' Hugo, armed with hammer smashes clean samples for everyone. 'It's between 1,300 to 2,000 years old. Two generations of magma, perhaps. 'The excitement is palpable, our dark thoughts are shifted.

 

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Undeniably beautiful but I wouldn't want to carry a slab at 4,000m.

 

On our ascent to the station we see some fabulous scoria. One of the major igneous rocks, lightweight and extrusive. I'm sure I see Dave skip. And there were definitely three 'awesomes' as he surveyed the rocks. But we'd not collected any as the ascent seemed our goal. We want some now, especially a large specimen we'd all cooed over.

 

To get it we need to descend and it's steep, loose and a little scary to Chiara and I. 'As we Italians say, 'If you don't have head, you give leg!' she says which means we have to go back and get it. 'It's FINE. Let's do a scree run,' says Dave nonchalantly. I check my walking pole straps to ensure non-breakage of wrists and we run down the slope after Dave who, arms outsretched and invigorated is shouting, 'Easy!' 

 

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Altitude-enhanced snack packaging. Never gets old.

 

I've brought with me a friend's backpack that she took to Everest. Its roomy to say the least. I offer it up for the collection of the big scoria. Proudly I carry what Dave and Chiara were sure would make it into the Museum's collections or possibly a gallery. Ten glorious minutes of hefting it, then I beg Dave to carry it.

 

 

Before we head back to the jeep, we survey Friday's climb. The ten hour hike. We've fared very well today, quite elated stomping down from the station. Not even tamales can prepare the team for what's to come.

 

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"It's so close, let's do it now," says Chiara.
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After a 24hr door-to-door journey from London, Lee and I secure our hire car and take on the streets of Mexico City. The traffic carries us along as it weaves and bobs haphazardly; the pavements are alive with switched on, purposeful looking residents. We’re roused from our jetlag by the hustle and bustle of the roads but crash back down to earth the instant we reach the hotel.

 

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It's bumper to bumper, the vehicles have indicators but I've not yet seen one lit.

 

There are approximately 24 million people living in Mexico City (that's almost 4 Greater Londons!) and it’s impossible to prepare for the field work ahead without considering the impact this volcano has had on the people that live in its shadow. 15 eruptions have occurred since the Spanish arrived in 1519 A.D. with an unknown quantity before. Then, after fifty years of quiet, in 1994 a series of earthquakes signalled that eruptions had started.

 

A cloud of ash could be seen over its peak and it fell on the nearby city of Puebla. Civil defense evacuated 19 villages (a population of 31,000 people) east of Popo. By Christmas of that year, the total number of evacuees reached 75,000 and a ban on climbing the volcano for non-scientific visitors has been in place ever since.

 

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A local squeezes through traffic.

 

We make an early start and drive to Amecameca, the town we’ll use as our base from which to climb Popo. Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ and breakneck-speed Spanish pumps from the radio as we tackle the GPS and the ‘soup’ of traffic. The map and the actual roads don’t always match but wrong turnings show us more of a landscape I already love.

 

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Municipal buses don't come any cooler.

 

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Gentle hustle on the busy streets.

 

Popo was visible from Mexico City but as we travel out in our car, the built-up scenery subsides to be replaced by quarries and swathes of red earth as the volcano begins to dominate our view. If Lee climbs like he drives he’ll conquer this giant, no problem. I stare in awe at the smoke plumes rising from its summit and think, ‘Will my climbing boots melt up there?’

 

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View from our car on the 115 to Amecameca.

 

Checked in at our base in Amecameca, we explore the town and gaze up at Popo. You find yourself wanting to see it from wherever you stand.

 

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The bar at Hotel Fontesanta, with neon palms and cutlery timepiece. Oh, and Popo on the horizon. 

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Sunset from nearby town San Pedro Nexapa

 

We’ve arranged to meet National Park official Agustin, to gain access to the park and get closer to Popo. Lunchtime’s late in Amecameca and by 16:00 we’re greeted by a hulking great man with a warm demeanour and an unhurried efficiency. Gabriella and Gisella run the education programme and agree to an escorted drive part way up Popo. Lee and I depart for lunch. You’ve never seen two people eat cactus quesadillas so fast or with so much excitement.

 

A winding 3,600m drive up to Paso de Cortes, our breathing begins to feel heavy, our heads light. In the thinning atmosphere, I feel oxygen rich and starved all at once. Coordination feels clumsy but our sight is fixed. Lee has climbed further to grab some establishing shots of Popo and has been noticed grinning uncontrollably by one of the rangers. 'Emotion' he says knowingly as he gestures toward him. Chiara and Dave arrived Friday night and the sampling begins on Sunday.

 

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Popocatepetl: Don't hold your breath, you'll need it.

 

We arrived here by car and this is the closest view non-scientific visitors see. From here, another 300m drive up is Tlamacas and from there, the ascent on foot begins. It’s been so valuable to take in the landscape before the science begins, to spend a little time at altitude and with the people who live with this volcano.

 

‘It’s exciting to live so close to Popo’ says Nacho, one of the park rangers with an incredible smile. We smile too and whether this is in agreement or the lack of oxygen to our brains, I cannot say. One thing’s for sure, the next 9 days are going to be pretty wild.

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Team Popo

Posted by Jo - Nature Live host Feb 1, 2013

By the time you read this I will be well on the way to the Popocatepetl, perhaps even there already... so while I and the rest of the team start preparing for the real work on the most active volcano in Mexico, here's the who's who of the Museum staff on this Field work with Nature Live trip. Let's start with the people here to do the fun stuff, the scientists:

 

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Chiara Maria Petrone is Research Leader in Petrology, a branch of geology that studies the origin, composition, distribution and structure of rocks. In this role she leads the Museum research on active volcanoes and the generation of igneous rocks. What drives this research is to understand how active volcanoes work and to study the rocks to gain insight into their future activity. Likening her work to psychology, she strives to discover the hidden history of the volcano, from the initial magma formation and mineral crystallization till the final eruption.

 

She has a PhD in Igneous Petrology from the University of Florence, studied Mexican volcanic rocks as a post-doc fellow at the University of Kyoto (Japan) and at the Carnegie Institute of Washington DC (U.S.A) Since studying her PhD, Chiara has developed a wide knowledge of the volcanism of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, where Popocatepetl is situated.

 

Her C.V. is positively strewn with active volcanoes including Stromboli (Italy), Santorini (Greece), Vesuvius (Italy) and the Mexican Volcanic arc and she bravely giggles when one highlights the dangers of a volcano like Popo. It’s new to Chiara and she’s keen to climb and study it. Hers is a truly exciting journey to follow.

 

Dave_Smith.jpgDavid Smith has a Masters in Geology and joined the Museum nearly 20 years ago. His official title is Petrology Collections Manager and he is responsible for the care and preservation of approximately 200,000 rocks and ocean sediments. Want access to material in the collection? Dave’s your man. The Museum’s Collections are in incredible order due to Dave’s deft curation but the work required on these vast numbers could keep Dave busy for another twenty years. And STILL not be completed.

 

Occasionally Dave appears on television showing specimens from historical expeditions and how they are used to enhance scientific knowledge today. The interest in the collection is not only from research scientists but artists too. Whenever he gets a chance, Dave likes to take photographs.

 

His subject interest is wide but he but prefers graphic architecture and abstract imagery. The latter I know because he first provided me with a blog photo you couldn’t see his face in. Once a year he teams up with three friends to form a rowing crew called 'The Muppets' for a Berkshire Regatta. Wearing the appropriate wig, Dave is 'Animal.' I cannot wait to see his fieldwork outfit.

 

And now your intrepid reporters:

 

Lee_Quinn.jpgLee Quinn has been part of the special effects team at the Museum for seven years with an applied arts degree from Camberwell College and a BA in special effects from South Bank Uni. Specialising in audio, he provides the most entertaining of his own on work assignments with his animated chat and if you've ever visited exhibitions such as our Wildlife Photographer of the Year, you'll have heard the soundscapes he's composed too.

 

He'll not deny the idea of climbing an active volcano appeals to him, 'I bungeed off a crane in Orlando when they were first invented, so this is a natural progression for me!’

 

Lastly, I’m Jo Kessler your devoted blogger, camera-shy reporter and member of the Nature Live team at the Museum, blessed with the role of developing events with scientists and presenting them to public and school audiences. Whilst having a lifelong love of the natural world, I spent my first working decade in the music industry, representing hugely talented and inspiring role models. So, little has changed in that respect.

 

When volunteering at the Museum in 2005 (do it if you can, the rewards are endless) I completed a BA in furniture and product design but soon felt ‘the call of the wild’ and made natural science my career intead. I’m so excited by the science at the Museum my drive is to share it. So, bombard me with your thoughts and burning questions and they’ll be answered (volcano jokes notwithstanding) ...

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In just over a week we fly out to Mexico to prepare for the arrival of Museum scientists Chiara Petrone and Dave Smith. We will be following them as they ascend the 2nd highest volcano in North America and the most active in Mexico, Popocatepetl.

 

Familiar with field work on active volcanoes such as Stromboli (Italy), Santorini (Greece), Vesuvius (Italy) and the Mexican Volcanic Arc, this is new territory for Chiara, whose aim is to collect samples to bring back to the Museum to study.

 

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In early February, we'll be following Museum scientists as they perform their field work on Popocatepetl - the 2nd highest volcano in North America and the most active in Mexico. Image: Cvmontuy

 

Working alongside our scientists is Professor Hugo Delgado-Granados, a researcher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The team are hoping to discover the entire history of the volcano from the rocks they collect, spending a working week hammering in the outcrops and climbing up to 5,000 metres, carrying rocks on their backs.

 

Reaching only a few hundred metres from it's very peak, the crater area is at present, too dangerous to climb to as 'Popo' is in an 'eruptive mood'. Let's hope this mood stays stable enough for us to climb and find specimens that will help them fully understand this incredible, natural phenomena.

 

Join the adventure and post up questions for the team on our blog posts, and come along to the Museum's Attenborough Studio where we'll live-video-link on the 5, 6 and 9 of Feb. Altenratively, kick back and watch us on a live-web-stream here. Whatever you do, do take part. We'd love the company as we scramble up a constantly erupting volcano with backpacks full of black rock.