Sunday, February 16, 2020

Studying an Active Volcano

Under the Volcano

Photography by Sallie G. Sprague
Text by Sallie Sprague and Stuart J. Shiffman

Ten days in the shadow of an active volcano give volunteer researchers a lens of nature's awesome power and its ultimate fragility.

Deadwood frames two researchers
below the Arenal Volcano. The daily
"ash trail" followed the gully up to
the south lava flow seen in the
Imagine going to a foreign country and spending ten days hiking in humid rain forests and baking deserts, in the shadow of an active volcano. Back at camp at the end of each day, you take an icy shower to rid yourself of the volcanic ash and insects cemented to your skin under a layer of sunscreen and bug repellent. At three in the morning, you get out of bed and stumble in the dark to an observation platform, from which, with luck, you might be able to see the volcano. There, listening to howler monkeys, coatimundi and dozens of varieties of birds, you wait for the volcano to erupt.

This is fun. Trust us.

Arenal at rest, showing the
current and former craters.
Near the village of La Fortuna in Costa Rica, 75 miles from the capital city of San Jose, there is a macadamia nut plantation that hosts an observatory facing the slopes of the Arenal volcano. This remote outpost is operated by the Smithsonian Institution as a base from which scientists and volunteers work, collecting samples of what the volcano spews out, recording data on eruptions, and studying the effects of the volcano on the delicate ecology of the rain forest.

A huge plume of ash
and smoke mark a
daytime eruptions of
Arenal is one of very few active, explosive volcanoes in the world, and has been more or less continuously active for the past 25 years. Until 1968, Arenal was a popular tourist attraction in Costa Rica. Troops of Boy Scouts, and packs of howler monkeys, held picnics on its slopes. It supported a lush, fertile pre-montane dry forest for 800 years, and was generally thought to be extinct.

But that year, after several days of largely-ignored earthquakes, Arenal exploded in a Plinean eruption (so named after the explosion of Vesuvius that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, as described by the historian Pliny the Elder). The eruption created a new crater several hundred meters below the peak, and killed about 70 farmers and rescue workers who were caught in the deluge of rocks, ash and hot mud. Within days, a scientific team from the Smithsonian and the Universidad de Costa Rica arrived at the site to study the eruption and its impact on the countryside, and, perhaps more importantly, to help determine the likelihood of continued explosive activity.

Daily collection of
ash samples in the
devastated zone took
researchers from
tropical forest to near
barren areas struggling
under acid rain.
Since then, under the guidance of volcanologist William Melson and botanist Victoria Funk, both of whom are staff scientists with the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian has been sending research teams, recruited from the ranks of Smithsonian Associates, to observe the volcano. The research teams are diverse in their backgrounds and training, but share a fascination with volcanoes.

Standing at a remote observation post in the middle of the zone devastated by the 1968 eruption (and several major events in the 1970's), you feel you might as well be on Mars. The area is strewn with rocks the size of small houses, thrown out by the force of the major eruptions. Fumaroles, or volcanic vents, belch hot gases from the rocks several hundred feet above you. Broad gullies run down to the shore of a nearby lake, formed by 20 years of heavy rainfall and erosion after the death of the forest. It is clearly inadvisable, not to mention extremely difficult, to climb the glass-sharp boulders and loose lava to the active crater looming only a couple of thousand feet above the observation post. And in fact, climbing the mountain was prohibited several years ago, when a visiting college student actually succeeded in reaching the rim of the crater just in time for the next eruption to kill him.

The sandy soil below the volcano has minimal nutrients, and is extremely acidic due to the acid rain that results from the hydrogen sulfide and halide gases issuing from the crater. Little grows here only island of sparse vegetation supported by decaying hulks of trees toppled in the initial eruption. Tough grasses and short, scrubby blueberry bushes present a vivid contrast to the lush green tropical forests that cover the surrounding hillsides. Indeed the climate in the devastated zone is more like that of southern California than that of the nearby forests. Except that in southern California there are cactus and sagebrush to invade the empty land. Here, there is nothing in the local ecosystem that will tolerate such harsh conditions, and so nothing to colonize or re-vegetate the devastated area.

Nearby is Lake Arenal, a reservoir created during the '70's by the construction of an earthworks dam. The dam supplies a major portion of the power used in the capital city. The shores of the lake are worn away by the erosive action of the years of wind and rains, and their exposed layers of soil attest to eight earlier Plinean eruptions of Arenal, over the course of about 3,700 years. Lying embedded in the beach, in muddy soil laid down 2,000 years ago, are fragments of colorful pre-Columbian pottery.

Both the old and new craters of Arenal are part of a line of volcanic activity moving slowly westward toward the Pacific Ocean. The tectonic movements of three plates colliding in the Earth's crust are believed to cause this activity. As one plate moves under another, bending an edge down into the Earth's magma layer, magma forces its way up through the two overlapping layers. The magma scours chunks of rock from the walls of the shaft, which are churned and partially melted into lava.

Until 1968, Arenal had only a single peak. But the eruption that year blew a gaping hole in the western flank of the mountain. In the next few years, the active crater moved up the flank of the old mountain so that now Arenal has two adjacent craters, joined by a saddle. The old crater sits belching gases sedately into the atmosphere. The new crater to the west is the one still sending boulders and gases high into the air. In 10,000 years, scientists predict, the line of volcanic activity will move westward and open a new shaft under the dam that forms the lake. But for the time being, the lake is safe.

Our research team was composed of a mother of two teenage boys, a retired Bell Telephone Company employee, a jeweler, a physician, a mathematician/computer programmer, an electronics technician, a freehand photographer and a civil servant. All were volunteers, willing to contribute their time and energy to a project aimed at someday, perhaps, being able to predict something about volcanic eruptions. We were also something else: students of the world around us, observing, concerned with the fate of our planet.

We gathered on a sweltering evening at a hotel in San Jose, not knowing which of the other guests were also going on this venture. At breakfast we picked out the not-very-discrete yellow and blue Smithsonian name tags and sized up our companions. In a flurry of hellos and tossed luggage, we left the city in the early morning. It was Sunday, April Fool's Day, 1990, and we were headed north, toward Nicaragua. Several hours of driving on tortuous roads brought us over the Continental Divide, where the heat and humidity of the city vanished for a time, like a dream. Several more hours brought us back down to the hot and humid plantation country, and finally to the observatory, nestled in a forest of long-needle pines. (The pines were imported for the local timber industry. This confused most of us because Costa Rica's forests, and tropical rain forests in general, are home to an immense variety of hardwoods, highly prized in the United States. In Costa Rica, mahogany makes the roughest furniture, or firewood, or rots in scrap heaps by the road. And the timber industry wants softwoods.)

Like a flock of kids in a new playground, we all had to inspect every aspect of our new locale. The observatory platform was high on our lists and soon had drawn most members of the group. We had our first, brief instructions in monitoring methods - instructions which were promptly interrupted by a large eruption. Huge clouds of ash billowed skyward as the "Kaboom!" reached us. (There was about a seven-second delay because we were two miles from the crater.) We had seen our first eruption; we hadn't traveled all this way to be disappointed by ten days of silence from Arenal.

After this auspicious beginning, we settled down to a pattern of three-hour shifts on the observatory deck, stop watches in hand, waiting. The eruptions were graded on the basis of size of plume, the amount of debris falling on the cone, and by a subjective assessment of the sound level, on a scale from 1-10. (Ten was strictly forbidden as by definition an eruption of that magnitude would have destroyed the observatory. A five made you jump. Seven and up rattled the roof, and the glass in the windows. We had several eights during our stay.)

Ash collection vials
were attached to tree
branches where the
tropical forest met the
devastated zone.
Surveyor's flagging
tape on nearby
branches, deadwood
or rocks enabled the
researchers to find the
vials each day.
This schedule continued for ten days, each day seeming like the one before. Time faded; offices and the calendar were forgotten. All that existed was the volcano. Each morning a four-member team would go out into the devastated zone. Two people would follow a trail through the rain forest and the desert, collecting samples of ash and acid rain from small bottles left out the previous day. The other two would go to a tiny shack on the slope of the volcano itself, amid giant boulders thrown out over the past 20 years, and wait for an eruption to send a cloud of ash overhead. They would collect all the ash that fell on a square meter of plastic which was spread out each day in anticipation.

We were lucky with the weather. Except for a few ominous-looking clouds that rolled in sporadically and that once dumped in an hour what seemed like the combined contents of the world's oceans, the sky was clear and blue, offering a superb view of the cone. Eruptions, and the time between them, varied widely, from a nervous and anticipatory several hours before a major explosion (which is scientifically referred to at the outpost as a "kaboom"), to scant minutes between minor rock slides or motions of the hot lava flow. We were fortunate enough to observe the formation of a new lava flow one clear night. Other events included tiny almost soundless whispers preceded by great gray clouds of ash, and a loud, chugging noise, like the passing of an ancient freight train, unheralded by any plume.

Pre-dawn eruption of the Arenal
volcano viewed from the
observation platform.
In the course of our stay at Arenal, we not only learned about volcanoes and geologic history, but also about ourselves. Limits were tested: Walking six to eight miles in the hot sun is not an everyday pastime for most of us; neither is sharing a 15-foot by 12-foot bunk room with several others; and neither is maintaining a sense of humor when you're either going to bed or getting up at 3 a.m. ... or one of your roommates is. We all stretched to adapt to the intense living situation, the stress of a volcano in the front yard, and the challenge of living in a new culture. Only two of the group had any facility with Spanish. The rest of us struggled, asking for extra blankets or milk for our coffee with all the eloquence of two-year-olds. (The experience made more real for us the difficulties that must be faced - and overcome - by people who come to live in the United States without being able to speak English.) By the time we left, a small eruption would elicit, "Oh, it's only a three" (in reference to the sound scale). We could also laugh knowingly at the folly of the "novice" tourists (as opposed to the several-day veterans we had now become) who thought they could climb to the crater in a few hours, clad only in shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes.

The April, 1990, research
team on the observation deck.
The volcano is shrouded in
clouds behind them.
We also learned about parallels between the area surrounding the volcano and our own "civilized" world. The acid rain that results from Arenal's gaseous emissions wreak havoc on the delicate rain forest ecology. Acid rain in North America, resulting from the emissions of factories, power plants and automobiles, is different only in degree: It's not as intense yet. Our own pine forests are not as sterile yet as the devastated zone near Arenal, but at the present rate of deterioration, they could soon come to resemble the broad, dying tracts of forested land in eastern and central Europe. As we continue to put stress on our own forests, we increase the risk that they will someday take on the wasted lunar-landscape appearance of what we saw, under the Arenal volcano.


Originally published in Middlebury Magazine, Vol. 66, No. 1, 1992. For more information about the magazine contact the editor at or visit their web site at
Photos and text © Sallie G Sprague and Stuart J Shiffman. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Thoughts on environmental science

Environmental Science:  Planning for the Seventh Generation?

Text and Photography by Sallie G. Sprague
Text reprinted with permission from: 
Window on Wheeler, Issue 1, 1994-1995, "The Runnins River Project."

Environmental science is not a science akin to the current pursuits of biology, chemistry and physics. It does not seek to 'divide and conquer' the complexities of the organism, the reaction, or the nuclear particle.  It is instead a concept of the whole, a pursuit that seeks to unite the disparate parts and their interactions into a coherent picture.

In the simplest of definitions environmental science is perhaps an attempt to apply scientific methods and rigor to the study of the whole environment.  Peter J. Bowler credits the current rise of the environmental sciences in part to "...the general public [which] has now begun to think of 'the environment' as an important problem in which science is deeply involved."  (The Norton History of the Environmental Sciences, 1993)

Science and technology have made huge strides, e.g., in fighting diseases and improving our standard of living.  The goals of science have been focused in the past on improving the life of humans on the planet with little regard for our environment.  We have been pitted against the forces of nature.  What we now see as problems in the environment give all of us the opportunity to bring science and natural history into our lives in an urgent, practical and non-academic way.

We humans need clean water, air, and lands to meet our basic metabolic needs (water, oxygen and food).  We also need open space, wilderness and community to meet our basic spiritual and/or psychological needs.  Each of us can make a difference through our cumulative actions.

Living in the Pacific Northwest I am daily aware of those who argue that preserving one more species of salmon or one last stand of virgin forest is not important to our survival today.  That is the short-sighted view.  With the huge increase in the human population and the ensuing demands for land and resources, we have reached the point where every salmon run, like a canary in the mine, serves as an indicator for the health of the stream and of the lands comprising the watershed for the stream.  Of the vast supply of water on Earth, only 0.018% is available as fresh water.  If salmon can no longer inhabit our streams and rivers, what will we use for our drinking water?

Salmon stream through pasture
before fencing and restoration
In the bigger picture, environmental science is not the academic delineation of all the inter-relationships within an ecosystem.  It is a way of life for all of us.  We all live here and we all have a chance to participate.  Preserving or caring for the large thing that we all call the environment is a commitment to our grandchildren and their grandchildren.  The efforts of the environmental movement, the hours volunteered to clean up environmental mistakes, speak to the true costs of some of our finest technological advances.

Volunteers planting trees along
the stream
Growth of planted vegetation
seven years later
Oil spills and factory wastes are probably the examples that come most quickly to mind but there are many, many smaller incidents that occur all around us every day.  Only when we, the people living down stream and down wind, stand up for our right to clean water and clean air will those still seeking short term gain at the expense of the environment be forced to correct their polluting practices.

How much of an increase in cancer or respiratory disease risk are we willing to tolerate for ourselves?  Or for our children?

Aldo Leopold's works of 1949, from The Sand County Almanac, are largely true today:

          "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.  We abuse because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.  There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.   
             That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.  That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten."

Is the rise in environmental awareness the beginning of our recognition of the community in which we must survive?
For more information on the Runnins River Project contact: 
The Wheeler School, 216 Hope Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02906, or

All photos are copyright © by Sallie G. Sprague and show stream and habitat protection and repair efforts in the Pacific Northwest.  For more information about habitat and stream projects in Whatcom County, Washington, visit the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association online at  If you would like to help NSEA improve riparian habitat contact their volunteer coordinator.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Lost in a rain forest

Only an Hour

We ARE going the wrong way.  This is west.  Camp is on the east side of the tractor path, east of the hill we climbed today.  The sun is out, peeking through the heavy jungle canopy.  It's the west... and we're walking right into it.  Elizabeth couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"Ganishwar, this doesn't look familiar.  I don't remember that creek crossing."

"Here's a cut.  We're still on the line," he replied, and pointed to a cut machete'd into a small sapling, indicating that they were still following a path marked by man with a line of machete cuts."

"But we're going west. Camp is east of the hill," she protested, trying desperately to keep a whine out of her voice. And then they were in this magnificent clearing. A huge tree had fallen, bringing down an acre of forest canopy. What a glory to be standing in full light after a day combing the damp and dark tropical forest for flowers and fruits.

"And I don't remember this clearing," Elizabeth continued.

"We went through a clearing this morning," Lance paused, "but it didn't seem so big then. And look at the drop-off over here." Helen was uncharacteristically quiet.

"We weren't here this morning. This is another place," Elizabeth said in her firmest tone. No one believes me, she thought. I'm the only first time visitor to this country and this forest. I can't follow one of their machete lines to save my life. And I know we're going the wrong way, even if there are machete cuts to follow. Her internal voice began to lecture her again. You know the sun sets in the west, even at the equator! And it sets early, and quickly, with almost no twilight. She was ready to be back in camp after a long day collecting plants. Damn Kendan, why didn't he wait for us, she fumed to herself, as she followed Ganishwar a little south from the clearing as he looked for the next slash left by an earlier machete.

He paused and admited quietly, "We weren't here this morning. It's a different line." Elizabeth wished she were wrong. Lance and Helen were still inspecting the fallen giant in the clearing as Elizabeth's stomach began to knot.

"Do you have a compass," Ganishwar asked. Elizabeth nodded and he stretched out his hand for it. He convinced himself that the line was heading south now and the two of them returned to the clearing.

"It's a different line," Ganishwar announced as he started back-tracking to the east. Both Helen and Lance started inspecting cuts now.

"These are new cuts."

"Who else would've been through here recently, 'specially with the tractor path?"

"We haven't seen anyone out here for weeks." Helen and Lance vigorously debated the claim of a different line. Their logic was sound but circumstantial. Elizabeth thought, they don't want to listen to a novice in this place insisting that they were not on the same path they took in the morning. They know I can't find most of the machete cuts on my own, let alone decide how fresh the cuts are in the unfamiliar tropical trees. She knew she couldn't, and still she knew this was a new clearing. This morning, she would have enjoyed seeking out the small plants growing on the giant's high branches, conveniently lowered to eye level on the fallen tree. Now, this was simply the wrong clearing. Helen and Lance seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the setting sun was indisputable evidence.

Ganishwar studied a few cuts. "It's an old line," he said. "We have to go back." And he strode off the way they had come. Elizabeth scrambled to keep up with Ganishwar as they left the waning sunlight by the fallen giant for the deep gloom of the rain forest. Lance followed a wrong line once before, and spent twelve long, dark hours alone in the forest, so Elizabeth was unwilling to be out of sight of Ganishwar who was, after all, the only local forester. His four years of experience in these jungles, spotting trees for the forestry division, was the only skill that seemed important or relevant to Elizabeth right now.

At the unfamiliar creek crossing they stopped. The line went north across the creek, back to that fruit tree that Kendan felled. They fanned out to search the south side of the creek for their path. There were no machete cuts to the east. The line went north from the creek, and west into the descending sun. The equal distribution of opinions about their options changed to three versus one. Only Lance still did not think they needed to go east directly from here, regardless of the old line of machete cuts. He was loath to spend another night out of camp in the jungle. Again, they paused to stare east into the untracked forest. Ganishwar looked at the compass again, and back at the height of the sun. They had a half-hearted discussion of true versus magnetic north, even checked the topo map to be sure that there was no way both compasses and the sun could be wrong, and estimated that they had maybe a half hour until sunset. Ganishwar handed Elizabeth back her compass, gestured for Lance's machete, and headed east cutting their path out.

Lance was still protesting from the rear as he stared at his compass. He had been found after his long, lonely night only because he sat on the line all night and waited for one of his guides to find him. And his guide went looking for him only at the bidding of the other botanical collector. All of this trip's collectors were together here, and no longer on any marked path. Their local guide wouldn't come away from camp on his own, and certainly not this late in the day.

Ganishwar set off at a fantastic clip, and Elizabeth hustled to keep up. Soon Ganishwar handed back the tree-clipper extension poles. They were slowing down his swing. Elizabeth passed one section back to Helen, and they followed the machete into ever darker and damper forest. The leaf litter grew deeper under foot.

"Look out!" Elizabeth called back to the other two as she passed an ankle-grabbing hole in the buttress root system. Elizabeth thought about spending the night out of camp, in dense forest. Lying down, or even sitting, on the leaf litter was not appealing. One pit viper is enough for this trip, and I don't want to know who else lives a few inches down in the leaves, she thought. Her stomach knotted more tightly as she tried not to think too much about Lance's stories of his night out of camp. Alone, no food or water, no machete, no sweater or rain gear, no flashlight, no company but the myriad of night noises. The rustling of the leaves, the sudden "crack" as yet another stiff leaf or ripe fruit hit a tree limb or the ground, the critters in the trees and the one that ran right up to him in the middle of the night.

"We shouldn't have left the cut," Lance was still protesting from the rear as the forest became thicker yet again. "You're veering south now," he called ahead.

Ganishwar shrugged, and kept swinging at the saplings, shrubs and vines, as he made a small adjustment in his direction.

It's not that bad, Elizabeth's logical voice started lecturing her not-quite-panicked gut. They've all been here before. There are four of you. You have a machete. You have water and peanut butter and hard candies. You have iodine and there's plenty more water around!

After walking for what seemed like forever, they crossed the end of a small ridge. More light reached the ground, and a treeline barely visible against the sky ahead suggested some sort of clearing or break in the forest. The leaf litter seemed to be only a thin layer over "dry" sandy soil. They were not up to their knees in roots and holes every other step. The trees weren't so huge now. They had moved into scrub forest. Ganishwar was hacking through rapatia and palm fronds. An orchid in full bloom bobbed as Elizabeth brushed by it. She collected it because it was the first one that they had seen actually in bloom that day, and because they would never find this place again, even if they wanted to. Now she was juggling a clipper pole, a long-stemmed flower and her own gear as she pushed through the bushes.

It's not that bad, the logical voice in Elizabeth's mind took on its most compelling tone. You can see some of the sky. Think! You have a rain poncho with grommets. You can string it up to keep dry. You have a lighter, flashlights, and a head net to keep the bugs off your face if you sleep. You took your mefloquine today so no malaria for at least another week. And your miserable boots will keep out the snakes and scorpions. You have more plastic bags in your pack to sit on. It won't be so bad if you have to stay out here tonight. ...As long as we don't meet any bush-pigs [tapirs] or snakes, her emotions hastily added. Thank God for the tractor path, she thought. It may be a blight on the landscape and a bad omen of what destruction may yet befall this rain forest, but we only have to go east long enough and we WILL hit it. Then she wondered, but will we SEE it, if it's dark?

Ganishwar was making better time now. The rest of them were having trouble navigating the smaller vegetation with the poles and the collecting bags. The plant press had gone with Kendan so Elizabeth was still carrying the small orchid. At least it hasn't wilted yet, she thought. A sawtooth palm frond tore across her face and one arm, drawing blood. Oh great, another break in the skin to get infected. She had lost all interest in photographing this part of the day. The sky was overcast and gloomy to the east, now that they were able to see some of the sky. There'll be more rain coming in tonight, she thought. Of course, that's what rainy season is all about in a rain forest. She ran out of thoughts to keep her mind off her tired feet, and hardly had the energy to plunge on to keep Ganishwar in sight.

Helen found a very finely woven bird's nest.... Maybe from a weaver finch? She and Elizabeth stopped to inspect the nest, and to rest. It was a very flimsy and delicate structure. Helen thought it was a pseudo-nest or a practice nest, not meant for use. Lance caught up with them in the middle of Helen's discourse about how the weaver finches build several false nests before the real one is completed.

"We should never have left the line," he said once again, in a completely flat tone. Elizabeth wondered if they were as worried as she. She couldn't tell. Helen's small talk seemed deliberately focused on minute details. Elizabeth didn't dare to ask. No problem. Denial in spades, she thought.

They moved on down a very small creek bed, where Ganishwar had disappeared into the bushes after slaying a large palm frond. And stopped. No Ganishwar. He hadn't waited. And no machete noises. Helen hooted. Nothing. She whooped louder, and the reply came from the east. They thrashed on and found the machete sticking in the ground. Ganishwar was up a tree and looking east. He was excited.

"The little creek is over there," he said, waving more-or-less south. "I see the tractor path!"

He was out of the tree and off down the creek bed in a flash, still swinging the machete. They plunged on again, through the rapatia and palmetto, arms held high to protect their eyes. Elizabeth's inner whine continued loudly, how much farther is it to the tractor path? When will the rain start?

Suddenly Ganishwar was a standing shadow, motionless in front of them, in the center of the tractor path. One by one, they broke out of the tangled vegetation, and into smiles of relief as the rain began to fall, only an hour from the giant's clearing in the jungle.

Text and Images © Sallie G Sprague.    All rights reserved.