Plumbing the depths of Costa Rica’s volcanoes

I am fascinated by the raw power of volcanoes. As a volcanologist, being in a crater and feeling the movement and pressure under your feet is almost a spiritual experience.

I live at the National University of Costa Rica at Heredia (I also have an affiliation with the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque). We are surrounded by very active volcanoes here, including Poás and Turrialba. I call the craters my natural laboratory.

My job here is to warn people of potential dangers. I’ve set up remote systems to conduct near real-time monitoring so we can be immediately alerted to changes in the composition of the gas being emitted from the volcano, an indicator of an impending eruption.

In this photo, I’m at Olca Volcano in northern Chile, helping to identify where the carbon released by local volcanic systems is coming from. My collaborators and I drove through 5,000 kilometers of desert and sampled the gas escaping from the Earth’s crust across the subduction zone.

I’m pictured with a titanium tube that we put into the ground as close to the gas source as possible to suck gas into a glass flask filled with a caustic soda. The gas bubbles through and condenses, and we later measure its composition in the laboratory. The glass gets almost 100 °C – so I wear a glove. The rest of my clothes protect me from the sun at a very high altitude and constantly smell of sulphur. I do not mind. You get used to that smell.

Volcanoes have personalities and change from year to year. Volcanology here once involved a scientist from a western country flying in, taking samples and saying, “This is the composition of the gas.” That’s helpful, but not enough – these are dynamic systems. I am building a longer, deeper understanding of Costa Rica’s volcanoes. That’s the beauty of being based here: finding that deeper perspective and contributing to the local science.

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