Category Archive: Fieldwork

Teaching Tools – Tectonic landscapes: Volcanic research at a subduction zone

After the Volcanofiles 2012 Chile Expedition, supported by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), we teamed up with GCSE Principal Examiner Martin Parham who took our experiences — photos, data, anecdotes — and turned them into useful teaching tools. As part of the RGS From the Field Programme, Martin created three lessons:

  1. A case study of active volcanism in Chile.
  2. Data analysis using some of the data we collected in the field with UV spectrometers.
  3. And, a practical task using a KML file of a walking transect at Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano.

The full lesson, with introduction and all downloadable materials, is available at the From the Field Programme website. As the website states:

This will be of particular interest to A-Level students studying Tectonic Activity, but is also a valuable resource for all students interested in understanding the activity of different volcanoes and how researchers collect data from the field.

We’re in Costa Rica!

After our month-long field season monitoring Villarrica in Chile, The Volcanofiles have headed north to Costa Rica. Our itinerary takes us all across the country.

UPDATED March 18th with a new schedule.

LIVE webcam of Turrialba Volcano

Where in the World?

View Costa Rica Volcanofiles Expedition 2013 in a larger map

Volcán Arenal
We start our season here in Costa Rica heading north. Arenal has been one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In the past two years, activity has been significantly lessened. Access to the rim is difficult, as the volcano is steep and can be quite dangerous to climb. Luckily, we can use our remote sensing instruments to measure SO2 emissions from the volcano. Weather is impossible to predict here in Costa Rica, especially on the tops of these high volcanoes, and Arenal is often covered in clouds at its summit. If we are lucky enough to have some clear weather, we will scan the volcano’s plume to our hearts content.

The next volcano on our itinerary promises to be the most interesting. Volcán Turrialba, although historically not the most active in Costa Rica, has been showing signs of unrest over the past two years. Recently, a new fumarole formed in the crater and has been reported as hot as 800 °C. With the help of our friends from the Universidad de Costa Rica, we will haul our FTIR instrument, multigas sensor, and UV spectrometers to the rim of Turrialba to learn about the flux and composition of the gasses from this new, very active fumarole.

You can get a great (Live!) view of Turrialba from OVSICORI’s webcam (see the top of this post).

Volcán Poás will be yet another stop in our journey through Costa Rica and is the most accessible of all of the volcanoes. A big tourist attraction in Costa Rica, there are roads right up to the rim of the crater after which a short hike into the crater down to its crater lake is possible with special permission. Poas always seems to be actively churning out gasses through its crater lake, which is lined at its bottom by a layer of molten sulfur.

Rincón de la Vieja
As is typical when working in this part of the world, we tend to play scheduling by ear. Because of our short time here and the ever-changing weather conditions, it makes it imperative that we spend more days than typical at the volcanoes where we think we can get the most data. We’ve decided to cut our trip to the north short and just visit the Arenal area (more as a touristic and recon trip for future field seasons).

Rincón de la Vieja is located in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica to visit Rincón de la Vieja (in Spanish, “The Old Woman’s Corner”). The name comes from an old Costa Rican legend in which a young woman’s father murdered her lover by throwing him into the crater of the volcano. The young woman then lived her life out on the volcano, gaining magical healing powers.

This February, the country’s observatory OVSICORI-UNA reported a number of eruptions from Rincón’s active crater. This could be a good site for future field seasons.

Stay tuned for more live updates from the field throughout our two-week stay here in Costa Rica! Pura Vida!

The ‘Volcanocopter’: Quadcopters at Villarrica

This year, the Volcanofiles are bringing an instrument into the field that’s not on the typical list of field gear for volcanologists: a remote controlled helicopter. Well, a quadcopter to be exact. And we couldn’t be more excited. Aaron Curtis, PhD student at New Mexico Tech, will be joining us in the field at Villarrica, Chile and will be flying his copters around on the crater of the volcano. We hope to get some good glimpses of the lava lake via the on-board video camera.

Here’s a look at Aaron’s test flights of the quadcopters at Erebus volcano last field season:

Chile/Costa Rica Expedition 2013 LIVE Tracking

These maps will be updated live throughout the duration of our trip! Watch this space and see below for location, photo, and info updates!

LIVE Map of the Expedition


SPOT Adventures Map w/Photos (not live)
Click on the map to go to our SPOT Adventures page.


Live Webcams: Villarrica
The view of Villarrica from the Centro Volcánico Villarrica (CVV) house that the crew is staying at during fieldwork.

Follow The Volcanofiles on our adventure through Chile and Costa Rica! Using a handy device known as a SPOT Connect, we will be able to send Tweets and Facebook updates as well as update the maps shown above.

The first map will be automatically updated, live, from our SPOT Connect in the field. It will track our location throughout the expedition as well as display any messages we sent through the device (geo-tagged, of course, so you can see where the messages were sent). The second map above also tracks our progress during the expedition and will also feature images that we upload. We will only be able to upload photos when we have access to internet, so it will be updated less frequently.

Some Photos:

A Late Update: Winding Down at Erebus

Somehow, the end-of-the-season post from Nial on Erebus was shoved under a pile of papers on our desk. But now, and not too late we hope, it’s resurfaced. Here is a belated update (from a few weeks ago) detailing the end of the field season on Erebus for 2012-2013. Everyone’s off the ice now and on their way to their respective homes. Here’s how the last few weeks went for Nial:

The season is starting to wind down now with only six of us left up on the volcano. I only have until the 8th January up on Erebus, so it is now a last minute rush to get everything finished off! The new power system has been working flawlessly (well pretty much!) for a few weeks now, and today the last of the old system got removed. The thermal camera system has a few strange bugs in it, which I have so far failed to track down. It is working reliably enough though, and I’m confident that it will continue to record images until the power runs out (or all year, if the wind generators survive).

Laying Cable: Aaron and Kevin spooling the new power cable out from the crater rim. We ended up using 8 of these drums to get from the crater down to Nausea Knob where the batteries and solar panels are. Each drum weighed 95 lbs!

Laying Cable: Aaron and Kevin spooling the new power cable out from the crater rim. We ended up using 8 of these drums to get from the crater down to Nausea Knob where the batteries and solar panels are. Each drum weighed 95 lbs!

Nial splicing two of the sections of cable together

Nial splicing two of the sections of cable together

We have bad weather for the past week, so not much work outside has got done. Yesterday it cleared though, and now it is glorious! The list of things to do has been drawn up, and now that the good weather has arrived everyone is rushing around trying to get things finished. Yeti (a ground penetrating radar robot – see this link) finally arrived yesterday after being delayed for 5 weeks! So the cave team is out late tonight taking radar data at Warren Cave.

One of the AvoScanners at the crater rim. I was using it to look for SO2 in the fumerole field you can see in the background.....there wasn't any.

One of the AvoScanners at the crater rim. I was using it to look for SO2 in the fumerole field you can see in the background…..there wasn’t any.

Update from Erebus: First “real science” of the Season

Just a quick update before I go up to the crater to “supervise” the air-drop of all the drums of our new power cable. It’s blowing 20-25 knots at the moment, so we will have to wait and see if the pilot is willing to attempt it today or not.

The team lands at Fang camp ready for a few days of acclimatisation. The weather was perfect, and the views were stunning!

So, after a few days of being delayed at McMurdo due to bad weather, we made it into our acclimatisation camp at Fang Ridge last Friday. Saturday was thanksgiving, so we all walked up to LEH (Lower Erebus Hut – our main field camp) for dinner, then drove back to Fang in order to sleep at lower altitude again. Sunday morning, we all drove up to LEH and started unpacking. The conditions looked pretty good for spectroscopy and we managed to get a couple of instruments up and running. Unfortunately, there were too many ice crystals floating around in the air, and so we ended up recording negative gas amounts in the plume!

A vertically rising plume and no humidity made for a perfect spectroscopy day. Here and AvoScanner outside the garage at LEH scans horizontally accross the plume.

After that, we gave up on spectroscopy for a bit and concentrated on setting stuff up. The microwave ethernet link to the crater rim is up and running, as is the old crater rim power system. The thermal camera is almost ready to be deployed, just awaiting some final tests to make sure it doesn’t overheat in its box!

Aaron checks out the entrance to Kachina cave during our trip to Cones. This was the entrance that we used last year to access the cave, but this year it has completely closed up. Another entrance further downslope can still be used to get into the cave.

Yesterday was the first “real science” day. Conditions were perfect, with very little humidity and a vertically rising plume. After setting up an AvoScanner to measure Sulphur Dioxide amounts in the plume, I went out to Cones (the communications repeater station on the McMurdo side of Erebus) with Aaron to try and fix the seismic station data feed from LEH. We also met up with some Alt. Energy technicians from McMurdo to discuss power systems for LEH, Cones and the crater rim. After that, we teamed up with Clive and took the FTIR spectrometer into Warren Cave. The FTIR measures absorption of infra-red light by different gas species, and can identify the relative amounts of many different gas species. We are hoping to identify the species responsible for the hydrocarbon smell around the entrance to Warren – watch this space for the results!

Clive pours liquid Nitrogen into the FTIR to cool the detector during our trip to Warren cave. Carrying the (very fragile!) spectrometer and all the batteries, tripods, computers etc. into the cave was hard work - even though we were very close to the entrance.

In other news – the rest of the G081 team have all arrived safe and sound in McMurdo now and will be heading to Fang camp at the weekend. We expect to see them at LEH next Monday.

Update from Antarctica: Preparing for Erebus

Nial Peters is officially On The Ice, with Clive Oppenheimer closely behind him. While making preparations in McMurdo, he’s taken some time out to send us some updates about this year’s exciting new projects including sending mains power to the crater rim for year-round science obs — a first at Erebus!

I’ve been run off my feet doing all the training courses and trying to sort gear ready for next week, so I don’t have any good photos yet (I haven’t left the Crary lab!). I’ve attached a few pics of the field preparations for you.

So for now it is just Aaron Curtis and I in McMurdo. We are due to head up to our acclimatisation camp, Fang, next Wednesday, and then up to Lower Erebus Hut (LEH) on Friday. Clive and Co. are arriving on the ice on Monday and then coming up to Fang on Friday. Lots to do before then!

Aaron working on a new webcam for the Erebus hut in our office in the Crary Lab. This is going to be mounted inside a dome on the roof of the garage hut and will be controllable by the public over the internet.

Charging new lead-acid batteries before they are flown up to LEH. These are going to provide extra storage capacity for the winter-over power system for the hut. This will allow us to maintain an internet connection at the hut year-round, giving access to instruments located at the hut (just webcams for now, but with plans for more in the future!).

Some of the parts for the new Erebus rim power system. The orange peli case houses the 12V power supply that will be stationed at the rim. To the right of that is the new low-temperature inverter which will convert the 12V supply from the battery banks at Nausea Knob (the power generation site) to 240V before it is sent up the volcano to the summit (a distance of about 0.5 km). The items in the foreground are some of the junction boxes and a short section of the cable which we are going to lay between Nausea Knob and the crater rim. The cable has been split into 10 sections, each weighing ~40 kg. This will all have to be laid by hand! However, it will be worth the effort - this will be the first year that we have year-round mains power at the crater rim, allowing us to run instruments over the winter. This is a huge step! Previously we have only been able to collect 2-3 weeks of data per year, now we will be collecting 52 weeks of data per year.

And, the fieldwork season begins…

2012 is coming to a close, and all of the Volcanofiles are itching to get back into the field.

Nial has already headed south. We received word from him that he landed in McMurdo station, Antarctica today and is headed up to Mount Erebus soon!

Made it to McMurdo a few hours ago. Weather is good down here, although it looks bad up on Erebus.

Kelby is headed west. He arrived in Mexico a few days ago. Later this week, the Cities on Volcanoes 7 conference kicks off, and Kelby will be there to update us on all the fun that we’re missing. After conference time, it’s fieldwork time on Colima.

Plans are then to take equipment up to the ‘cano starting right after the conference. Then likely make a summit climb which will take 3-4 days depending on the road. Then back to Colima to leave the next day for 10 days at my monitoring site. Busy, busy!

Watch this space for more updates from the field-bound team and lots of pictures, too!

Video: Chile 2012 RGS Volcano Field Expedition Slideshow

Without the help of our supporters and sponsors, our 2012 Volcano Expedition to Chile would not have been possible. Many thanks to the Royal Geographical Society for their support of our fieldwork at Villarrica, Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, and Lascar volcanoes in Chile. We created this slideshow for use by the RGS-IBG outreach programme to encourage other to pursue fieldwork and careers in geography and geosciences.

Learn more about the RGS Geographical Fieldwork Grant at The next deadline for the award is 14 June, 2012.

AvoScan: The Open Source UV Spectrometer Scanner for Measuring Volcanic Plumes in the Field

Meet AvoScan v1.0.

Volcanofile Nial Peters (Mr. Fix-it) saw a problem that needed solving, a niche that needed filling. What’s the best way to scan, either vertically or horizontally, through a volcanic plume in order to measure the flux of SO2 from a volcano? His answer: AvoScan.

Essentially, AvoScan is a lightweight, low-power, portable scanning unit designed for use with OceanOptics spectrometers. Built in is a motorized rotating mount for a standard UV spectrometer telescope. The device is connected to a laptop via USB and is controlled through the open source program AvoScan written in Python programming language. The software has an intuitive GUI that allows the user to select scanning speed, name files, etc. The software accurately records the angle at which each spectra is taken and can then be matched to the files output by the spectrometer after a day’s work in the field.


AvoScan was built for fieldwork

“AvoScan was built in the field for use in the field,” says Nial Peters, inventor of AvoScan. “Field equipment has to be simple and intuitive to use. It should solve the actual problems of collecting data in the field, not just the ones that you can anticipate whilst sat in your office.” Because AvoScan is lightweight and portable, it doesn’t add to your already overstocked luggage allowance on flights out to the field. And because AvoScans enables traverses of a volcanic plume to be measured from a static location, there is no more need for driving around volcanoes on roads that may or may not be drivable!

An AvoScanner on fieldwork, in its natural environment

Testing AvoScan at the University of Cambridge. AvoScan does all the hard work -- so you don't have to!


AvoScan is open source

“Scientific research is underpinned by the peer review process,” says Peters. “You wouldn’t believe someone’s results unless you could see their methodology. Why should the hardware/software used in research be any different?”

“Furthermore, most research problems are so specific that no software exists to cover them. Having to start a software project from scratch is a pain. It is much better to start with a program that mostly does what you want and then to tweak it to your specific needs. You can’t do that with a closed source program.”

Nial Peters writing code for AvoScan v1.0 software


Where can I find schematics and software code for AvoScan?

The AvoScan software is already available online at Google Code

Peters adds, “however, it is far from finished! I am concentrating on getting the new version of the scanning unit finished and tested at the moment. Once that is done, then I will make more of an effort to tidy up the code and put some hardware specs up online.”


AvoScan v2.0?

AvoScan is a work in progress. Think of v1.0 as a working beta. Version 2.0 will be a new and improved, weather-proofed AvoScanner with loads of extra features (built in camera for sighting, internal compass and accelerometers, extra USB ports, serial port…). As soon as specs and new code is available, look for it here on The Volcanofiles.

For now, here is a sneak peak of the AvoScanner v2.0!

AvoScanner v2.0... coming soon!