Nine turning points: a writing exercise

Below is the “turning points” exercise I completed at a workshop I attended in April 2020, “Finding Your Voice As An Academic Writer”. The point of the exercise is to rewrite an aspect of one’s chosen subject through a series of “turning points”, just like twists in a work of fiction. I study Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala, so I used significant eruptive events in the last 20 years to consider the potential lessons learned among Guatemalan scientists (INSIVUMEH) and professionals working in the national disaster risk reduction agency (CONRED). This is primarily a writing exercise and does not contain the necessary references for an academic argument. This was a thought-provoking writing exercise, and I hope that reading it interests you, too.

Nine turning points: What are the events that have driven scientific and risk-management learning at Volcán de Fuego?

Volcanic risk research is becoming more interdisciplinary. Physical and social scientists recognize the mutual benefit of combining their expertise to produce new wisdom. However, this alliance is rarely reflected outside of academia, in the experiences of people working or living with a volcano. This is true at Fuego. Here, physical and social volcanology are trained separately, two parallel branches that do not meet. But these branches grew in the same environment and their development is strongly intertwined. At any point in Fuego’s history, we can identify significant events that inspired change or growth. These ‘turning points’ are significant for both those people monitoring Fuego’s physical activity ( INSIVUMEH) and those invested in Fuego’s intersection with society (CONRED and the communities near Fuego that they work with). As an example, let us trace the two decades that have passed since Fuego’s reactivation in 1999.

Fuego reactivated after two decades of dormancy with a VEI 2 eruption on 21st May 1999. Prior to this, Volcán Pacaya was the ‘problem child’ that most concerned INSIVUMEH’s volcanologists. This eruption required INSIVUMEH include Fuego in their monitoring remit. Given that Fuego had been relatively inactive since the institution’s inception in 1976, the eruption represented a significant growth in INSIVUMEH’s responsibility. Their responsibility increased further with the paroxysmal eruptions of January and June 2003. These were the first eruptions to produce hazards that directly threatened people on Fuego’s west flanks (the June 29th, 2003 paroxysm produced pyroclastic flows that damaged property near the village of Sangre de Cristo), and motivated INSIVUMEH to seek support through employment of observers. The next event inspiring major change was 13th September 2012, a VEI 3 eruption. A greater eruption since 1999, 2012 represented a step change for INSIVUMEH in the size of eruption they were expected to monitor and report on.

Our next turning point is the new eruptive cycle beginning in 2015. From 2 – 4 annual eruptions, beginning in January 2015 Fuego had a paroxysmal eruption approximately once a month. This represented a new challenge for INSIVUMEH: (how) should they adapt their monitoring and hazard communication to reflect the new regime? The new regime, where lava flows grew before an explosive summit eruption, was remarkably consistent – until the November 2017 effusive eruption.  For almost three years, a paroxysmal eruption of Fuego was heralded by growing lava flows, frequent summit explosions, and the “chugging” noise of a locomotive train. In November 2017, despite all these signals, the volcano did not accelerate towards a paroxysm. This sequence generated further scientific questions; clearly, the processes driving eruption at Fuego were more complex than volcanologists had previously thought.

The devastating eruption of 3rd June 2018 is a recent point in this twisting chronology. In the apparent lack of lava flows, in the several months of relative calm that preceded Fuego’s convulsion, this eruption differed markedly from those before it. The eruption also revealed the shortfall of equipment and trained personnel at INSIVUMEH. Such a shortfall may have impeded attempts to accommodate lessons learned from earlier eruptions. A World Bank workshop aptly named “Lessons Learned” was held in October 2018 to address the current challenge of Fuego. Here, INSIVUMEH’s technical shortages were broadcast to outside stakeholders by its new directors. This event generated some positive change for INSIVUMEH by stimulating investment in its monitoring network. In June 2018 there was a single functioning seismometer at Fuego (FG3). By mid-2019, a network of seismometers and an infrasound array were being installed. In addition, several new staff were hired and being trained in satellite imagery interpretation and analysis.

Moving from the scientific to the social, we can see how these events are significant to CONRED and the locals they work with. Returning to the late nineties, we find people steadily populating the flanks of Fuego. The civil war ended in 1996 and land redistribution created new settlements like La Rochela, Escuintla. La Rochela is a small community on Fuego’s south-east slopes made of people resettled from Huehuetenango in western Guatemala (as illustrated by the crimson trousers the men of the community wear). People displaced from the cool western highlands had no concept of volcanic hazards in this alien environment. Similarly, the inhabitants of Sangre de Cristo were unfamiliar with the pyroclastic flows that descended Barranca Santa Teresa in 2003. In response to this, INSIVUMEH installed a second observatory and radio at Sangre de Cristo, and CONRED constructed an evacuation shelter. Now INSIVUMEH scientists, CONRED risk managers, and locals were seemingly linked. Fuego’s 13th September 2012 eruption marked another chapter in both local and risk-management experiences. Over 10,000 people were evacuated from communities around Fuego. Evacuation of the village of Panimaché Uno was led by staff of INSIVUMEH’s volcano observatory OVFGO1. In interviews I held for my PhD, many people spoke of the respect the observers gained in eyes the community for this leadership. CONRED was also inspired by this example to create UPV in late 2012. (UPV is a subsidiary office of CONRED devoted to educating and working with local people to build resilience to future eruptions of Guatemala’s volcanoes.) These interviews were a turning point in my own story, when I learned of the depth of knowledge contained in locals’ experiences. I vividly remember an early meeting that planted the seed. I met the caretaker of property damaged by volcanic mudflows in 2017 and 2018. Talking in front of his colleagues, who were digging black mud out of a saturated toilet block, he spoke eloquently about the rumble of the descending waters, and his intention to rebuild. It was his testimony that showed me the mudflow hazard exacerbated by the new eruptive activity INSIVUMEH had observed since 2015.

The 3rd June 2018 paroxysm devastated local people. A whole community, San Miguel Los Lotes, was wiped from the map. In my interviews, people from distant villages expressed shock; that they were only now aware of the damage that Fuego could cause. The World Bank workshop that followed represented a possibility for institutions to reflect on this eruption and request assistance in their ongoing efforts to monitor, educate and strengthen community resilience. While INSIVUMEH presented their lack of equipment and trained staff as challenges to fulfilling their institutional responsibility, staff from CONRED’s central office questioned their level of responsibility with the example, “If your house was on fire, would you wait for the fire brigade to evacuate?”. One valid point that this workshop did highlight was a continuing fracture in communication between INSIVUMEH and CONRED. Superficially, their roles are clearly defined. Their respective efforts to monitor Fuego’s activity and educate people vulnerable to that activity grow in parallel. But “the devil is in the detail”: there are deep uncertainties in the designation of responsibilities within the intersection of human and eruptive activity that cast some doubt on their future success in mitigating volcanic risk at Fuego.


6 thoughts on “Nine turning points: a writing exercise

  1. Very interesting. I like the way this “turning points” approach writing helps build the story, block by block and gives it a clear sense of direction.


          1. Not too many often but when it does happen, I hope I acknowledge the writer’s talent and pay due respect!


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