Thursday, 22 January 2015

Photoessay: Flying to Volcán de Colima

Flying to a volcano, flying around one of Mexico's most active volcano,  has been the highlight of my time in Colima. I know I haven't finished my volunteering trip but this combines my childhood love of flying with my obsession with volcanoes. I've been looking forward to this opportunity the minute I was told about it (and I had to postpone twice because of other visitors) but it was worth every single penny and seconds I had to wait. Volcán de Colima is absolutely beautiful, from the ground to the sky. 

Getting ready for LIFT OFF

Nick arranges these flights to happen once a month as a way of monitoring the volcano. He needs two volunteers: one to handle the thermal camera and another to take digital photographs. Other volunteers can go on the flight as "tourists" if they are lucky and enjoy the whole ride while the main two have to panic about making sure the equipment doesn't start misbehaving and taking the images of anything that is relevant. 

We waited eagerly for an email from Nick at 7 AM to check if the flight was happening. If there is a single low cloud, the flight is called off. You need the perfect weather conditions. Around 7:05 AM we got an email simply stating "Great conditions! See you at 7:30" and the rest of the day literally flew by.  

The truck was being repaired at the mechanics (again) so we had to take a taxi to the airport.
Check out our six-seater sweet ride. Possibly the smallest plane I've been on. 

The best part of being in charge of the thermal images is that you get to seat on the co-pilot seat!
All the passengers before lift off!

Coming face to face with the volcano

The whole flight is about an hour but the actual flight around the volcano is about fifteen minutes. You can't help but stare out the window for the whole trip, the landscape around the volcano is beautiful too. The land is so green, splattered with a few small towns and farms, and the sky was blue... it was the most scenic combination. I had a permanent grin on face the whole ride through.

An unknown little town as we were approaching the Colima Complex.
This is one of my favourite photos from the whole trip
An attempt to be artistic - the Comlima Complex with a view of the airplane's nose.  You can see the faint outline of the propeller.
My second favourite photo of the trip - where lush forest meets the hostile land. 
Cutting across the plume
Getting close to the summit. You can see the parasitic volcano twin, Volcancito, on the bottom left corner and the northern lava flow. 
The view of the whole Colima Complex from my window...
... And now the pilot's view 
Nevado de Colima and Volcaán de Colima side by side. Does it remind anyone of an old couple?
Although Volcaán de Colima looks taller in the photos, Nevado de Colima has a higher elevation of 4271 m compared to VdC's height of 3839 m. However, VdC is still active and growing, while NdC is being eroded away, so VdC may reign over the whole complex one day. The current activity of the volcano includes vulcanian eruptions and the growth of a lava dome (which began in 2007, I believe) that overspills to form the active lava flows around the volcano and rockfalls (which are beautifully incandescent!).

 Descending - Heading back home

Of course I was dreading the fly back home... "Couldn't we fly around the volcano for five more minutes" was what I really wanted to ask the pilot. A part of me wished I went on the plane as a "tourist" but I was pretty happy to sacrifice the time to take good digital photos just to sit at the front (I'm obsessed with taking photos of the volcano, I know). Despite me thinking the flight went smoothly, I accidentally left the GPS equipment on the plane (you can see where I left it on one of the photos) and the pilot didn't let us take the photos for Nick early enough, d'oh. I kept thinking on the way home that I would love to go for another flight, maybe I should go for it again. A month later, I think once was enough, I don't want to make the experience less special by going on it again (I think you'll only get the awe you feel for the first time once). Saying that... I can't help but glance back on the photos, it was an amazing trip.  

Aviation sunglasses, check. Gelled back hair, check. Collared shirt, check. I do believe we have a pilot here.
More evidence that I was in the co-pilot seat!
Approaching Colima airport
Couldn't help myself :')

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Getting up and personal with a lava flow

Happy New Year, everyone! It's already a few days into 2015 (say what?) but I'm still in December mode. I remember how excited I was about NYE but now I'm in denial that 2014 is over. Now I should be moving on but there are some loose strings I want to tie up. I wanted to mention from my last moments of 2014, some exciting fieldwork that mades me realise why I want to do this peppered with a few moments that makes me feel like I'm not cut out for this work. One such field trip was to El Playon, potentially the best campsite in the national park because... it's the closest you can sleep to the volcano! How cool is that?

An action shot that Derek might appreciate
We made our way to El Playon just before eight in the morning. Even though the Volcano is named Volcán de Colima, it is still a good three to four hour drive. It was all the more important to leave early because from my previous post you will remember that I couldn't go to El Playon the last time we tried because of a certain landslide. We were prepared this time: this landslide was no trouble for 3 geologists armed with a shovel + 1 geologist armed with a pick-axe. Within thirty minutes we made ourselves a new road and strolled into our final destination.

Okay, I lie, the roads were cracked along the way and we had to stop again to fix up the roads. I accidently left two shovels behind but a shovel and pick axe was enough. I'm pretty sure we were doing the National Park's job! 

The truck can get a little crowded at times
I will admit the ride becomes exponentially bumpy as you leave the high way and into the national park. If you are sitting on the back of the truck, you will get hit by branches, showered by petals and leaves and have mud flung back at you. It's no luxury ride but the view... the view is incredible. The national park is hardly frequented by foreign tourists, though we met many from Guadalajarans, so it feels like this view is a little secret you have in Mexico.

Cosy for two
As soon as we arrived, we set up camp. Before Mexico, the only other time I camped was for a practise Duke of Edinburgh expedition, which was more of an old school type of tent. This one took approximately ten minutes to set up because of Delphine's expertise. I seem to be the only one who hasn't regular camped before because I was subsequently teased for taking a photo of my temporary home. We also set up the equipment straight away (or else we would be missing out on data!!) and I learnt how to set up the car battery and solar panel as a power source for the two types of camera. Unfortunately, learning how to set up an equipment doesn't mean you know how to dismantle it after... there might have been a small incident involving a car battery and crocodile clips melting, which has been so far the lowest moment of my fieldwork here. I've learnt, I've learnt.  

Sadly, an epic view was missed out on because of low clouds.
Around late afternoon, Nick and I set off to collect some "hot rocks" from the active southwest lava flow. It's a short hike from our camp but it didn't take long before I was finding it difficult to talk and walk at the same time. This isn't from the altitude, it's from how much my endurance sucks (potential New Years resolution alert). We've been on the volcano cone at least since the afternoon but you feel safe in the shelter of the lush vegetation, almost makes you forget you're on one of the most active volcanoes in North America. If you keep travelling further up, you'll be met by what can be described as barren land. Trees, flowers, grass cannot survive within the vicinity of the summit because the ashes can suffocate and burn any living creature. The transition from the beautiful scenery to a hostile environment lies around where earlier pyroclastic flows travelled to. The November pyroclastic deposits didn't travel as far as the ones that occurred earlier in the summer (August?) because there was still "fresh" ash a little way up.   

One amazing thing about view as you travel up to a lava flow is looking at the remnants of a rockfall. Every fieldtrip, we take turns recording the rockfall and from a far, these look like tiny specks if you can see anything at all (I use the dust cloud generated to spot them because my eye sight is very bad). From up close, you can see that these rockfalls that originate from close to the dome can be large as our truck! Some of them smash into smaller pieces on the way or on their final impact (like that photographed) while we did see a few that stayed better intact. Now if you didn't realise, but we were still vulnerable to these rock falls while we were hiking on the barren/active part of the volcano. Even wearing a helmet didn't make us invincible to the dangers of the volcano. Heck, what am I saying? There could have been an eruption any time we were up there, it's a fate I accepted. My best protection was to seek shelter behind a large rock.

You can recognise the darker, towering lava flow from the paler, rockfall remnants.
Now when I said lava flow, I'm sure some of you would have imagined a the gooey basaltic lava flows you see on Hawaii. Well, have a look at the photo above because that's what an andesitic lava flow front looks like. Much rockier and thicker than I expected to be if I'm honest. It's hard to tell from the photo but the lava flow is about 10-15 m high (in my opinion). I wish I could go up closer as a scale to show you how high the top of the flow is, but I didn't want to risk getting knocked out by a rockfall on the lava front (most of the rock falls originated close/on the summit but this lava flow front was generating its on rockfalls too). 

Nick found some "hot rocks" - rocks which were still warm hence fresh from the lava flow. He takes them back to be analysed at the university. We should have taken the thermal camera to see which rocks were the hottest but we forgot sadly! Luckily these rocks are warm enough to be compared by touch. OH and for the clarification, these were not on the lava flow itself but rock fall from the lava flow i.e. 10's meters from the lava flow. We wanted to come back alive. 

Nature knows how to fight back. I couldn't help but take a photo of this plant who obviously couldn't wait to start sprouting despite the rocky region. In the photo below, you see how hostile the volcano looks. Trees dying due to the pyroclastic flow deposits among new grass who are maybe a little too optimistic about their chances of a long life. 

Going up is much easier than going down. I fell down countless times because the ground was unstable (lots of loose rocks, big and small). We headed down soon after collecting some rock samples because it was sunset and we wanted to get back before it was dark. Unfortunately, the clouds started to lift only when we started descending the volcano at night looks as cool as volcano at night, if not more cooler.

Sadly, our trip to Playon wasn't as successful as we would have hoped. The volcano was pretty cloudy that weekend meaning we could only collect so much thermal and digital data. Luckily, Nick managed to get the flyspec working (another problem we had at Nevado) so we had that going for us. There were a few more trips, the others went to the parasitic cones, Volcancito, while we went to collect some 1913 rock samples and ash samples from the latest pyroclastic flow. A pretty full on trip, if I do say so myself, and boy were we glad to be home.