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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

Three weeks of amazing fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes of the world have come to an end: Popocatépetl and Colima, you have been very generous to us, both in terms of large quantities of promising samples and impressive levels of activity. Now that we are back in London, we want to conclude this blog for the time being with some take-home impressions of our beautiful Mexican volcanoes.

 

As scenic and contemplative these pictures may be, all the steam puff, ash clouds and fresh lava streams are a constant reminder of the immense destructive powers slumbering within these giant volcanoes, posing imminent danger to its surroundings. Both Popo and Colima have shown increasing levels of activity in the last months, making detailed real-time monitoring as well as fundamental studies of the underlying principles of the volcanoes’ dynamics even more pressing and important.

 

Using the samples we collected during the last three weeks, we, at the Natural History Museum and Imperial College will work hard in the future to contribute to the understanding of how Popo and Colima work.

 

There is more fieldwork at Popo to come in the next years, and of course we will be covering these trips at this exact place again. Until then, enjoy the pictures and be sure to watch out for a forthcoming NatureLive event at the Museum’s Attenborough Studio, where we will be talking in detail about our exciting trip to Popo and Colima! Thanks for reading.

 

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Popo as seen from Paso de Cortes: The wind blows the impressive steam plume to the NE.

 

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Looking South: The mildly snow-capped Popo towers in a surreal way over the trees surrounding ‘La Cascada’ resort.

 

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A last view from our hotel in Amecameca: Popo bids farewell to us with a nice trail of steam puffs.

 

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The danger within the clouds: Fuego de Colima. Even through the cloud cover, one can make out the gases that are constantly exhaled from the summit.

 

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The black lava flow in the center of this image has been emplaced during the last two years of activity of Fuego de Colima. The ‘clouds’ you can see here are actually gases coming from this lava flow, which is still hot.

 

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Twin peaks: The steaming, several hundreds of degrees hot summit area of Fuego de Colima in the foreground, and its snow-capped older sister volcano, Nevado de Colima, in the background.

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.


Popo times are over (never mind the blog title), but for Chiara and me the journey continues: Colima volcano, here we come! We have planned three days in Colima, and since winter in Mexico is generally a time free of clouds and rain, we are fairly confident that we will get some great shots of this impressive volcano. But alas!, as we arrive at the tiny Colima airport, we find that the view of Colima volcano is somehow underwhelming:

 

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Harder than spotting lava at Popocatépetl's flanks: Whoever finds Colima volcano in this photograph is a true eagle-eyes and deserves an honorary display in the Museum's bird galleries.

 

The weather in Colima remains tropically hot, damp and cloudy for the next one and a half days. Chiara makes the best out of the bad conditions by giving a spontaneous talk about her work at the University of Colima, while I use the time to give you some background information about Colima volcano:

 

Fuego de Colima, as the volcano is called, has been very active in historical times. There were large eruptions about every 100 years in the past, which directly leads us to the alarming part of the story: the last major eruption took place in 1913! And the volcano has certainly woken up in the past few years, with volcanic domes - very viscous lava forming a plug in the crater - frequently being built and subsequently destroyed. (By the way, this is exactly the same type of activity as we see at Popocatépetl, even though the volcanoes are very different in other aspects.)

 

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Fuego de Colima, and its snowcapped older sister, Nevado de Colima, form an impressive mountain mass towering above the State of Colima. Fuego de Colima has been very active in the past few months.

 

Especially since last summer, Colima has produced several small- to medium-sized eruptions every day; one of the largest since 2005 happened while we were peacefully collecting pumice at Popo:

 

 

It seems that Fuego de Colima is preparing for something bigger in the foreseeable future, and authorities are on alert in order to protect the ~300,000 people living in the vicinity of the volcano.

 

After intense rainfall during the second day, the weather clears in the evening, raising our hopes to finally see some action. And as it turns out, we get even more action than we were daring to dream of: we get offered a flight in a small airplane around the volcano on the third day of our stay. Obviously, this is an offer we can't refuse, especially after we are being reassured that the pilot is very experienced and knows how close he can get to the crater without getting into eruptive trouble. So off we go! Take a look at the stunning pictures we were able to take:

 

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Colima volcano, airplane view: gases are constantly emitted from the crater region. The surface of this area is several hundred degrees celsius.

 

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Even though there is some zoom involved in the picture, we are disquietingly close to the place where the explosions happen. The channel in the foreground of the picture is in fact a lava flow descending Colima's SW flank.

 

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A steamy view to the North, with the newest lava flow going down the left side of the picture. The very top of the volcano is a flat or even slightly concave surface (just as a proper crater should be)…

 

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…In December 2013, the summit looked very different. Here, we can see a fully intact, hemispherical dome. The explosions that have taken place since then have literally blasted off the cap of the dome.

 

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After the flight: Chiara is happy about what she has seen, as well as about being safely back on solid ground.

 

As soon as we are back at the airport, the volcano starts an impressive performance of steam and ash emissions. We congratulate ourselves that we are not in an airplane above the top right now and take more pictures!

 

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This eruption column is about 4 km high and contains very little ash, as can be gathered from the bright colour. However, if you look closely, you can see some ash falling out of the cloud towards the ground.

 

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Night falls, and Fuego de Colima continues its show.

 

We could show you plenty more pictures of Colima erupting, since it continued similarly throughout the rest of our stay (and is still ongoing!) and we were quite trigger-happy. But this blog entry is already quite long, so if you want to see more of Colima volcano, we would like to refer you to the freely accessible webcam that delivers live, high-quality pictures right to your computer screen. As I said, there are several eruptions like the ones shown above every day, so if you spend some time with it, chances are that you will be live witness of a proper volcanic eruption!

 

Sadly, our time at Colima is already over now, and also our field campaign draws to a close. Stop by here shortly for final, picturesque remarks about our work in Mexico.

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

This uncomfortably oblique photograph marks the end of this year’s fieldwork at Popo. As you can see, we have been extraordinarily successful in collecting samples:

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All in all, we have collected twelve boxes full of pumice and lava in the last two weeks, each of them weighing about 20 kg!

 

Moreover, not only have we been doing well in bagging rocks, but we also made many important field observations, such as the relation of the different volcanic units in time and space. This is essential for the proper handling and analysis of our samples.

 

As soon as our heavy load arrives at the Natural History Museum, I will crush the rocks into tiny pieces and examine them using different types of microscopes. We are confident that this will tell us intriguing stories about how Popo works. The adventure has just begun!

 

But first, we will drive this trunkful of rocks to Mexico City, where we will also say ‘muchissimas gracias’ and ‘hasta luego’ to Julie, who will fly back to London, and also to Hugo and Guillem, who will stay in Mexico City. Chiara and me will stay in Mexico for another week, which we will mostly spend in Colima. There, about 500km West of Popo, the ‘Fuego de Colima’ volcano is currently very active, with several small eruptions every day. We are excited to go there and see some nice ashclouds, and of course, we will keep you posted about our ventures in West Mexico!

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

After our dirty but successful pumice-rich first week at Popocatépetl, we were all happy to get that dust off our shoulders and start chasing the various lava flows that make up most of the volcano edifice. Now, if the whole volcano is built by lava flows, it should be really easy to find these rocks, shouldn’t it? The short answer is: no. The longer, picturesque answer will take you into the wild, rough and bumpy world of Popo’s lower flanks, where a good rock is as hard to find as a sleeping baby lion in the vast African savannah. Join us on the magical ROCK SAFARI!

 

Early in the morning, when Popo is still entangled by the night’s misty claws, we make our way from the hotel in Amecameca towards the south-eastern flank of Popo, the land of the sneaky rocks.

 

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Somewhere down there they are hiding: the Popocatepetl lava flows!

 

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On the lookout for rocks: moving in this terrain makes you reconsider what you may call a ‘road’.

 

What makes it so difficult to find these lava flows is the fact that most of them are buried by a thick cover of the Popo pumices (not again!) and lahar deposits. So in many cases the only thing we can find on top of these dirty deposits are loose boulders of rock, which we can’t even be sure belong to the place we find them lying. A tedious job requiring lots of caution!

 

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An easy catch: can you spot the rock?

 

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Julie finds a rock that has tried to hide away from our hammers…

 

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…we took care of it.

 

Such a seek-and-destroy campaign can easily take a couple of hours for one lava flow and is not necessarily successful. However difficult it may be, when you finally spot a nondescript, lichen-covered rock specimen, the adrenaline you feel while smashing it into pieces to see what species it is pays off generously.

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Another boulder from a Popo lava flow successfully tracked down.

 

One factor that contributes to our (otherwise rather questionable) sense of adventurism during this rock safari is the daily recurrence of a group of local forest watchdogs roaming around the terrain. The first time they came, they only surrounded our car with a grim look on their faces, checking if we were hunters (if they could only know!).

 

The second time, they had machetes (they were cleaning the roads from vegetation) and we had to give them some money so they’d let us pass. The third time, it was already getting dark, and they had shotguns to guard a road against any people with mischief in mind. We certainly didn’t at this point. The good thing is that by now they know us and they greet us cheerfully every time we pass them.

 

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Obviously, we weren’t keen on photographing the shotgun watchdogs, so instead we present evidence that some lava flows are not good at hiding away. This the Nealticán lava flow, which is the most recent of Popocatépetl’s lava flows (in geological terms, ‘recent’ means younger than 2,000 years). Because of its young age, it is not covered by a lot of deposits and is thus widely exposed. Unfortunately, this flow is the exception to the rule.

 

In this manner, we have chased down a couple of lava flows in the past few days. We are very happy with the outcome of our rock safari and can’t wait to introduce these samples to their new temporary habitat while they are shipped to the UK: cardboard boxes!