UB Professor, Graduate Students Study North America's Most Active Volcano On Site in Mexico

By Donna Longenecker

Release Date: May 17, 2002

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A UB faculty member and geology students recently traveled to Mexico to study the most active volcano in North America.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Marcus Bursik describes Colima, the most active volcano in North America, as "a creature of habit."

Its habits of late include rock avalanches, frequent explosions, lava flows, sporadic ash emissions, earthquakes and house-sized boulders careening down the side of the volcano. And there's also the possibility of a full-scale eruption in the next five to 10 years if Colima continues its 100-year eruption cycle.

Bursik, a professor in the UB Department of Geology, recently took graduate students enrolled in his advanced field methods class to western Mexico for one week to study Colima's eruptive patterns up close and to learn from residents what it's like to live beneath "el Volcán de Fuego," or "volcano of fire," as Colima is known.

The UB group was only able to get within three to four kilometers of the crater, but even at that distance, all that they needed to see was highly visible since the volcano itself is so large, he says.

"Several nights we went out and watched glowing avalanches," Bursik recalled. "Big, gigantic, house-sized boulders were breaking and bursting apart on the slope and you see all these sparks flying out, just hundreds of them at a time. It's really beautiful, and during the day, they look like clouds tumbling down the side of the volcano."

The goal of the trip was to familiarize students with an explosive volcano and volcanic terrain by mapping lava flows and rock formations, studying sedimentation and stratification of flows and debris, and trying to understand how area inhabitants react and interact with the volcano.

The students also took part in a cultural and scientific exchange with students from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma di México.

While Colima's last major eruptions were in 1818 and 1913, its record of activity dates back to 1580. Since 1991, the volcano has been erupting constantly on a smaller scale, but not without peril to the area's residents. "The experts down there think that this is a build-up cycle before its big eruption," Bursik explains. "This one does tend to cook along for awhile and it's in a phase where it's building up to some peak event at some point." But that may or may not happen, notes Bursik; the volcano also could just die out.

Part of the students' work required mapping areas of the volcano, especially volcanic flows that could help decide where future development should or shouldn't occur, on or near the mountain, based on risk assessments of the areas of highest volcanic activity.

Tracking Colima's seismic activity on a daily basis is important to the farmers and villagers who live in the volcano's shadow, but much also can be learned by creating a historical picture, studying and dating rocks to find out what the volcano's eruptive pattern has been over hundreds and thousands of years, says Bursik.

"It's a real problem when you go to these places and see the misery that the volcano causes and how big an effect it has on people right there," he adds. Because most of the inhabitant's wealth is tied up in their land, an unnecessary evacuation can devastate a village. Residents are forced to leave and when they return, most of their meager belongings having been looted.

"This causes incredible problems," says Bursik. "There are many more cases where people were needlessly evacuated and their economic activity stopped because they came back and had no life left. There are many more cases of that than of people being evacuated and the volcano destroying everything."

By developing maps that show past lava flows and possible routes for future flows and overlaying them with information about where people live and their economic activity, volcanic hazards can be better understood by civil authorities responsible for evacuations, Bursik says.

"The mapping has a lot to do with the problem of how society treats it (the volcano) because it's only by learning how these things act that we can figure out whether or not some place is in danger," he says.

Moreover, when it comes to reading and interpreting the types of activity on the volcano, Bursik says, "the residents are quite savvy, especially the ones who live really close to the volcano. The ones who live father away are less savvy because they don't see a lot of the details." The people in villages closest to the volcano have been trained to recognize its dangers and are coming to terms living with its constant eruptions and the variety of loud, explosive noises it makes.

Bursik expressed the hope that he can get the UB and Mexican students together again as part of a cultural exchange of scientists and future scientists working together to study volcanoes in the U.S.

He noted that one graduate student who participated in the spring break trip to Colima plans to return to study an area that was once a company town and was buried by a debris flow in 1955. The flow, which occurred in a narrow, steep canyon, killed 25 people and displaced 600.

Bursik said the State of Colima is building a database related to the volcano's activities to which he hopes to contribute, further enhancing knowledge about the risks and hazards of living in the area.

While Bursik is sensitive to the difficulties experienced by the people who live near the volcano, he also tries to remain detached and focused on science, which he sees as offering the best hope of preventing future catastrophes.

"The effect it has on me," he says of witnessing the hardships suffered by the area's residents firsthand, "is to want to do as good a job as I can in my capacity and understand the volcano as well as I can so these warnings are as tightly constrained as possible so there are no needless evacuations and there are evacuations when they're needed."