A sense of scale

For my first blog post while in Guatemala this spring, I thought I would write about scales of time and distance. It’s something I think a lot about, especially because my research is split between two distant countries, and because 2.5 years into my PhD, I have rather more time to reflect on than to look forward to.


Distance is perhaps the more obvious scale to begin with. First, because it’s so bloody large! The internet tells me there are 8,650 km between Fuego and Bristol. Imagine tracing your finger over a globe between the two – that’s a lot of Earth you’ve traversed. This is a distance felt mostly in time (Guatemala is six hours behind UTC) and in communication (WhatsApps often arrive at lunchtime in the UK, when Central America is rising for the day).

Guatemala City is 30 km direct from Fuego as the crow flies. This is kind of disingenuous, because it minimizes the hard and twisted route that we earthbound folks have to travel to get there. It takes 4 hours to travel this distance, which illustrates the difficulty of accessing many communities stitched on Fuego’s southern flanks. Part of the route to Panimache Uno (Panimache One), the village where INSIVUMEH’s observatory is located and where I am writing from, involves leaving the main highway to travel a winding, boulder-encrusted track that is completely unlit. Imagine walking down this route to evacuate from one of Fuego’s paroxysmal eruptions.

Panimache Uno is approximately 8 km from Fuego’s summit. For an observatory, is that close or distant? One of the observers, Amilcar, had an excellent point – it seems to be close enough for an excellent vantage point for monitoring, and distant enough to allow probable evacuation from a paroxysm. That of course depends on an early warning system. The INSIVUMEH observers have been instrumental in encouraging evacuations in good time. I have heard they led the evacuation of Panimache Uno during the eruption of 13 September 2012, when pyroclastic flows descended Barranca Ceniza, and assisted in response to eruptions in 2018.


These eruptions stand out in memory, distinct from a landscape where the frequency of Fuego’s activity means some become accustomed to living with a background of thunder. The observers have photos from the 3 June 2018 eruption that they share with visitors. They say they wish to preserve the memory of what happened so that awareness does not wither with time. Indeed, some events are timeless: several people have told me stories they heard from their elders of the 1974 and 1967 eruptions, or what they experienced themselves. On the other hand, some monuments fade into the jungle. There were apparently three Panimaches in the past: the original Panimache Uno was destroyed in the 1974 eruption, supposedly, and its ruins remain in a road along which no-one travels any longer. Thus Panimache Dos (Two) became Uno, Tres (Three) became Dos. Y asi se va olvidando …

The 45 years since 1974 is half a lifetime. What about shorter timescales? People remember the 3 June 2018 eruption well – la gente ya esta conscientizado – and some talk in fear of the tragedy of Los Lotes. Meanwhile, other experiences have since formed – for example, the eruption of November 2018. Still, we see that some positive changes have come: it is heartening to learn of INSIVUMEH’s new equipment and expect better support for its team of hard-working and talented volcanologists.

Obviously, it’s self-centred, but the timescale I find most difficult to deal with is my own. I have been working with Fuego since 2016 which, wow– I cannot believe it’s been so long! I still feel out of my depth sometimes, and I don’t understand a lot. In other ways I can’t believe how comfortable I feel. Speaking in Spanish with the observers and INSIVUMEH staff, driving around the country, presenting myself and my work: these things are becoming familiar. At the end of the day, I know that the processes that govern Fuego may remain mysterious but I should remember that I cannot single-handedly discover the answer. It’s a collaboration over distance and time, a question of uniting different scales to understand better together … what this spring project’s all about!

One thought on “A sense of scale

  1. Great blog, Ailsa. I love the reflective mood – it gives a sense, not only of the physical distance and time between you and me as you write from Guata and I read here in Edinburgh, but also the social, linguistic and geographical differences, and yet, as you point out, at its core this project is not so much about the differences as about the importance of collaboration. Look forward to the next piece of writing.

    Like

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