Following my last post in the Curator of Petrology blog The island that disappeared, we take a closer look at the type of volcanic eruption that created the ephemeral island, the rocks produced by this type of eruption, and meet Empedocles – the submarine volcano that gave birth to Graham Island.
Popo is up to something: during most of our stay, the volcano calmly and steadily exhaled a faint white plume of gas. At night, this plume reflected an equally faint reddish glow within the crater – a reminder of the power that lies beneath our majestic mountain. But in the last few days, the number and intensity of small explosions has increased, and the colour of the plumes changed from steam-white to ash-grey.
The storm is over. All that is left are some patches of snow on Paso de Cortes, which are being exploited to the very last snowflake by hundreds of people from Mexico City and Puebla – their children have probably talked them into coming here to witness the rare, exciting snow and build small, dirty snowmen on top of their car’s windshields (!). When we pass by Paso de Cortes at nine in the morning, the scenery already resembles a small fun fair, with improvised food stalls, barbecues, policemen with machine guns (they are there to protect the people from bandidos), and snow-capped Popo as a side attraction:
An early fiesta at Paso de Cortes. You can see the snow-capped Izta, Popo’s neighbouring volcano, in the background
Popo watching over the fiesta
And this is only the beginning of the day. Many more will arrive in the next few hours, but we won’t be around to witness the chaos. We need to dig a hole…
It started as a gust of wind last Tuesday afternoon. The sun was shining, villagers around the corner were celebrating something with live music, gunshots and tequila, and we were so captivated by the pulsating fall layers of a huge Popocatépetl eruption some 23,000 years ago that we hardly noticed the dust constantly blowing into our eyes. That Tuesday evening, though, the upcoming storm was becoming hard to ignore: it started to rain heavily, and the wind joyfully played with a large metal piece somewhere in our hotel all night long. The infernal sounds were accompanied by several electricity cuts, occasional heavy hail showers and lightning. All in all, a quite convincing storm.
Now, being a naïve European, I am used to storms that don’t last for much longer than one intense night. The storm that descended on Mexico this week was different. It lasted another two days: strong winds felled advertising boards, trees and electricity posts, and temperatures up to 40°C lower than usual produced hail and snow that paralysed – and at the same time excited – large parts of Mexico (as you can imagine, snow is very rare in Mexico). Fieldwork turned out to be a rather insecure and soul-destroying activity under these circumstances, so we got creative. What follows is a documentation of our life in the times of the ‘big storm’…
We have only spent a few days in Mexico, but so much has happened already: we have driven 600 km around the flanks of El Popo whilst getting a comprehensive crash course in Mexican music by Hugo; we have casually named previously unmapped lava flows; scared away scorpions with our merciless hammering on rocks; digested 3-cows-worth of Mexican food; and, above all, marveled at snow-covered Popo, which was silent witness and patron of all our endeavours.
But let’s wind back a bit and take it up at the beginning of our trip, Mexico City…
Dear reader, be aware… the content of this blog may be explosive! As I am writing this, the crater of the Mexican volcano, Popocatépetl, is alight with the glow of the hot lava that is slowly being squeezed out to the surface. Sometimes this happens very calmly, and only a trail of puffs of steam mark the activity.
But this apparent tranquility can quickly change into something much larger, much more violent, and much more dangerous to the 30 million people living around Popocatépetl. How can the volcano change its behavior so quickly? And what, exactly, does quick even mean in this case? Well, this is what we Volcanologists at the Museum are trying to find out, and that is why we are right now packing our geological hammers, getting ready to take off to Mexico!