Professor and students say the eruptions in Hawaii and Guatemala have scientific and social differences

Written by: 
Shannon Crowley

Ecological differences between the Hawaii Kilauea volcano and the Guatemala Fuego volcano have led to very different results on both a physical and social scale. The devastation of both is undeniable, but according to students, there is a silver lining in the unity created among people in the face of great loss.


Tremendous loss

The aftermath of both volcanoes in Hawaii and Guatemala resulted in the loss of many homes and even lives. According to USA Today, nearly 700 homes. Professor of Physical Science and Oceanography, Dr. Benjamin Jordan, explained, “What’s happening in both places is a tragedy. People are losing their livelihoods; they’re losing their homes and things like that. The difference though is in Hawaii no one has died. In Guatemala, because of the nature of the eruption, it’s much more devastating because you’re losing not just your possessions, you’re losing family and friends.”


José Gomez, a senior from Guatemala studying business management shared his thoughts on the volcano. “Where I’m from, we have two volcanoes, but they’re inactive ... I heard this [eruption] was being compared to Pompeii, so I guess it has to be pretty big. I think the fact there were people living in the borders of the volcano was what was really affected.”


On the eruption, Ana Barraza, a senior from Idaho studying TESOL education, said, “My family was in Guatemala City, so they’re good. I don’t know anyone in the villages ... According to my dad; there was a lot of warning beforehand. There was a lot of activity, so it’s sad there wasn’t much evacuation.”


Unity in the face of a disaster

When asked on how the disaster had drawn others together, Gomez responded, “I see my friends and people around there gathering and taking stuff to the people who were affected, and I’ve never seen something like that before. So many people are bringing clothes and helping. I was amazed at the peoples’ behavior towards the people the volcano affected.


“Two of my friends who, with their families, sent out on social media, ‘Hey, we’re going to the town where the people were affected and we’re taking these things. Would you like to help?’ and they received tons of help ... I think that was one of the positive things that came out of this event. You can see how close people are, and they have solidarity.


“It was a bad experience, a sad experience that we don’t want to have happen again, but what I want to remember about this event is the goodness of people. If we gather together and work, not only for these natural disasters but for other causes like education, or something like that, I think we can achieve great things,” Gomez ended.


Speaking on those affected and not affected by the eruption, Barraza said, “As soon as there is a need, people step in and help, which is really cool.” She then clarified, “It brings out the best and the worst, because you still have people who are stealing, but you still have a lot of the good stuff; People who are helping their neighbors, donating clothes.”


Two different volcanoes

Jordan shared how the Guatemala eruption was different from the recent eruption in Hawaii. “The main difference fundamentally comes down to the type of magma that’s causing the eruption. So you get a volcano because you have a place where magma reaches the surface and then it comes out and then it becomes lava. So, the type of magma here in Hawaii has a very low viscosity, so it flows very easily and any gases that are inside of the lava can escape, so you don’t get a lot of gas pressure that builds up.


“That, coupled with the fact that there isn’t a lot of gas, you don’t get really huge explosions ... the lava in Hawaii comes out as these liquid lava flows, whereas in Guatemala, the lava is very viscous. It’s very sticky. It doesn’t want to flow... Hawaii’s lava is kind of like honey. In Guatemala, it’s more like peanut butter. It also has a lot more gas in it – a lot more water vapor. The main thing that comes out of a volcano is water, so you have lots of steam trapped inside wanting to get out.


“What ends up happening is, as it comes up to the surface, the surrounding air is at a lower pressure than the gases inside of the magma. The gas inside of the magma tries to expand and escape. If the magma has high viscosity, the gas can’t escape and eventually the gas pressure inside becomes so great that it explodes, and it’s much more dangerous because it explodes.


“That’s the main reason they’re different; fundamentally. It’s because of the different types of magmas, but then it goes back to how they are generated, how that magma’s created. In the case of Hawaii, it’s a hot spot, which is where you have hot rock that’s solid, but it can flow and it flows up until it reaches the surface under the plate where it melts and forms the magma. That type of magma is very low viscosity and typically only has a moderate amount of gas in it, whereas in Guatemala what’s happening is you have subduction. When you have subduction, water is carried down, and that is what’s causing the melting. That water is not only causing melting, but also that water, and potential steam, is going into the magma. That’s the difference: one is a subduction zone and one is a hotspot.”


Guatemala’s eruption had sizeable amounts of ash, according to Dr. Jordan who explained what is in the ash and how it is deadly.


“The ash is the lava because the lava is exploding, the lava is shattering into fine particles that make ash,” he said. “You can think of ash like a soft drink, where the gas bubbles come out and make foam at the top. The ash is basically shattered foam. So as the gases are coming out, they’re exploding and shattering the lava and creating the ash.


“Most people tend to think when they see an explosion, the ash is the mountain blowing up, and it’s pieces of the mountain, and there’s a little bit of that, but the vast majority of the ash is from the lava itself. It’s not only exploding, it’s also cooling and forming solid particles ... If you look at ash under a microscope, it’s little tiny shards of glass.


“What kills people with these ash clouds, these pyroclastic flows, they’re about 700 degrees Celsius. It’s also moving at 200 kilometers an hour and its semi solid because it’s made up of ash gas and also broken pieces of the mountain. If you can imagine getting hit by something that’s fairly solid and it’s moving at 200 kilometers per hour and it’s 700 degrees, that’s why it kills people.”


When people will describe the eruption as Pompeii 2018, Jordan responded, “The eruption style is similar, but it’s not the level of Pompeii at all. The nature of the things that have killed people, these pyroclastic flows and pyroclastic surges they’re often called, are the same thing that killed people in Pompeii, but the scale is not the same as Pompeii.


“Fuego is, at least currently, it could get worse, but Fuego is a vulcanian style eruption, and Pompeii was what is called a plinian eruption, which is much bigger, lasts much longer, and actually devastates a much larger area. Same types of volcanoes produce two different types of eruptions, but I would say the one in Guatemala is a step down from what happened in Pompeii, which is really good because if you had the same scale of eruption you had from Mt. Vesuvius, it would be much worse than it already is.”


Two contrasting responses

Gomez explained the kind of aid he was aware of Guatemala receiving after the disaster. “Guatemala hasn’t received a lot of help from other countries ...The [LDS] Church helped, in the program Manos Que Ayudan-Helping Hands. These young adults, from what I’ve read, but I’m not sure, helped out more than the government.”


He added, “Something that we can learn from this is how the government is functioning because, not only didn’t they do anything, but they were also taking advantage and bad people as well were stealing.”


Jordan shared, “There is aid being sent to Guatemala, but it isn’t being widely reported.”


According to Gomez, the eruption in Guatemala was headlining the news for only a few days, whereas the Kilauea eruption, where none have died, has been getting continuous coverage for months.


He said he believes the reason for the lack of coverage is, “I think that, it being a third-world country, a lot of people are not aware of it. But I think if we compare the volcano here in Hawaii and the attention it is receiving to the one in Guatemala, then yeah, you can say it’s kind of unfair. Maybe it’s because no one really knows where it is.”


Jordan agreed with Gomez, “I think that’s true, but to be fair, Hawaii’s in the United States, where the news agencies are. It’s easily accessible, everything’s in English, so it’s easier to report on. That’s why people report on it. Guatemala is more remote ... it’s not in the United States. So that’s the thing. You have to realize that journalists have to write the easy story too. But it’s true. I would say that the devastation in Guatemala is much worse than what has happened here in Hawaii.”


Hazards from Kilauea

Jordan gave a lecture on June 14 in the Little Theater that outlined the different hazards happening as a result of the eruption. He has visited Hale Mau Mau crater on the Big Island on multiple occasions, he said, the first being back in 1998 and the last being a few days before they indefinitely closed the national park.


“It wasn’t active. There was no lava coming out. Nothing going on. There were gases and you could see the sulfur, but it was pretty quiet. In 2008, things changed. All this time I should say lava was coming out of Puu Oo, but not the main crater. In 2008 there was an explosion and a small opening opened up in the edge of Hale Mau Mau. When it opened up, there was found to be this collapse and then down in this opening was a rising lava lake.


Jordan cited gaseous volcano pollution, known as vog, as a cause for concern for all the islands in Hawaii. “At the point where this opened up, a lot more gas started to come out of the volcano. And that’s important from a volcanologist point of view because normally one of the signs of increasing volcanic activity or future volcanic activity is the increase in the amount of gases that start to come out,’ Jordan explained.


“Another hazard that is basically ongoing are earthquakes,” said Jordan. “I was there a month ago, and I was sitting in my hotel room, and all of a sudden I felt what you get when you start to get sea sick. I thought, ‘That was an earthquake.’ ...The earthquakes are caused when rock breaks. The most dangerous earthquakes are the ones near the surface because there are earthquakes going on all of the time.”


Jordan discussed how ash explosions affect the respiratory health of Big Island residents. “This is another hazard, not for us here in Laie, but in the immediate vicinity of the national park, which they’ve closed because of it. The reason why volcanic ash is bad is because it’s basically microscopic glass fish hooks. When you breathe it in, it’s basically lodging in your lungs and it stays there. It can affect your breathing, and if you have too much, it can cause a condition called silicosis, which is similar to lung cancer.”

Date Published: 
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Last Edited: 
Wednesday, June 20, 2018