GeoArc expedition to Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua

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A short 20km outside of Nicaragua's capital city of Managua, Masaya volcano rises out of the fertile black soil. At 635m above sea level, it's not an especially tall volcano, however at the base of one of its five craters is an open lava lake. The lava lake, which resurfaced in 2015, acts as a window into a geological subterranean world; a world that remains largely unknown up to this day. For scientists and researchers the open lava lake provides a rare opportunity to study the internal dynamics of the volcano while simultaneously monitoring the gases it emits into the surrounding environment. By investigating these and other elements of the volcano, we can better understand its impact on this beautiful region of Central America.

A unique experiment was designed to sample Masayas plume at various elevations above the lava lake and downwind from the crater. This would allow scientists to gain a three dimensional profile of the gases dissipation from the lava lake source into the surrounding environment; an experiment known by the team as the Source to Sink Experiment. Acquiring emission samples on the rim of the crater and downwind from the plume are relatively straightforward tasks; one needs to leave a multigas sensor in a fixed location for the duration of the experiment. In contrast, strategically placing gas sensors above a 60m diameter lava lake, 400m down into a 600m wide crater is an entirely different task altogether. Moreover, taking into account the gale force winds within the volcano crater, while attempting to keep the sensor in one location long enough to gather an adequate sample only adds difficulty to an already difficult challenge. Tackling such a challenge requires specialized skills and equipment.

In order to conduct the experiment the GeoArc Foundation (a not-for-profit specialised in leading unique scientific expeditions in hard to reach locations and extreme conditions) brought together a cross-functional, multinational team of researchers and local authorities from Simon Fraser University (Canada), The Open University (UK), the International Volcano Monitoring Fund (Canada), Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territoriales (Nicaragua), and Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria (Nicaragua). Together, researchers and rope access technicians designed and installed a pioneering aerial rigging system capable of lowering sensors deep into Masaya Volcanos main crater. Applying over 2.1km of rope, the team spanned the system over the crater with a central masterpoint that could lower another line with multigas samplers directly over the lava lake.

In order to position and maneuver the masterpoint, eight rope access technicians worked under the supervision of Max Dugal, Level 3 IRATA and SPRAT, and side-by-side with Dr. Guillermo Caravantes, volcanologist and GeoArcs CEO, and Professor Glyn Williams-Jones, volcanologist at Simon Fraser University. All equipment used in the systems development and operation was exposed to the harsh volcanic environment; including acid rain, toxic fumes, and extreme heat.

Only the best equipment would survive long-term exposure in such an unforgiving environment. To shorten or lengthen the massive three legs of the rigging system, and thereby accurately position the multigas sensors, the team used the ActSafe Power Ascender. This essential tool allowed the team to efficiently retract and feed hundreds of meters of rope, effectively placing the multigas sensors above the bubbling lava lake. By holding them at a fixed elevation above the lava lake, scientists were able to gather a robust dataset which will lead to new and important insights about Masaya volcano.

Dr. Williams-Jones has been studying volcanoes in Central America for over 20 years. When asked about the expedition, he stated, "[It] has been a great success thanks to this amazing team. The scientific data we have gathered and the insights we have been able to share would not have been possible without the professional abilities of the access team."

It is work like this that propels our understanding of extreme natural hazards and their impact on human life. Research into volcanos, like Masaya, would not be possible without the dedication of multidisciplinary teams and the specialized equipment they use to obtain data that is often difficult if not impossible to access.

For more on GeoArc, visit GeoArc here.

For more Dr. Williams-Jones and his research, visit here.

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