Volcano Monitoring of Santiaguito (Guatemala)

The Santiaguito lava-dome complex is one of the most active volcanic areas in Guatemala and worldwide. Santiaguito grew inside the large crater of the 1902 eruption of Santa María volcano, one of the largest in the 20th century, which claimed the lives of several thousand people. Its present eruption began in 1922, and has produced explosions, collapses and avalanches, pyroclastic flows and lahars for nearly a century. The activity is a threat to a population of several tens of thousands and many farming developments in the area. The local communities have sustained severe damage from pyroclastic flows and lahars in the recent past, including the town of El Palmar located about 10 kilometers (approx.. 6.21 miles) from Santiaguito, which was destroyed and abandoned, forcing the displacement of its population to a new settlement.

In 2018, a team of researchers from the University of Liverpool (UK) and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany), received funding from GWB to support a project in collaboration with INSIVUMEH (Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorología e Hidrología), the Guatemalan agency responsible for volcano monitoring. The objective was to support volcano monitoring at Santiaguito with the installation of state-of-the-art seismic equipment and training of local scientists. The project wanted to strengthen the response capacity of INSIVUMEH and local civil protection authorities during eruptions.

Geophysical equipment was made available by the University of Liverpool (UK). By the end of the project, in the summer of 2021, four new seismic sites were established at Santiaguito; two of which were equipped with infrasound microphones. These sites, including one in proximity of the active Caliente dome, transmit data in real-time from the field to INSIVUMEH in Guatemala City where they are processed using automated computer algorithms. Several data products are available within seconds of receiving the data to support volcano monitoring operations, and to issue alerts of eruptive activity to the national civil protection and local communities near Santiaguito.

The project faced many challenges starting from site selection, which required liaising with local landowners and businesses. INSIVUMEH was key to secure access to the best sites. Access to some of the sites around Santiaguito required strenuous hiking for many hours over unstable terrain at elevations of 2500-3500 meters. A team of local guides, led by Mr. Armando Pineda, ensured that fieldwork could be performed safely and efficiently. Importing equipment into the country was a lengthy process that couldn’t have happened without the support of the UK Embassy in Guatemala. Site construction, which required hundreds of hours of labor was continuously supported by members of the local communities, who often volunteered their time and resources to be part of the efforts.

More than 15 undergraduate students benefitted from data collected at Santiaguito for their studies, five PhDs and two postdoctoral research associates actively participated in the initiative, and 25 members of INSIVUMEH received training throughout the past 3 three years. Two investigators (Dr. S. De Angelis of the University of Liverpool, and Prof. A. Rietbrock of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) led the project, and many other academics took an active role in it. At least eight scientific articles in international peer-review journals and a long list of conference proceedings and abstracts are directly linked to this GWB project.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020 the project was already at an advanced stage. A one-year no cost extension granted by GWB and the valuable support from INSIVUMEH meant that the team was able to complete it’s planned work and achieve all of the project’s objectives.

The GWB project has now ended, but work continues in Guatemala. GWB funding allowed the establishment of a new volcano monitoring program at Santiaguito and contributed to attract new funders to support additional development of volcano monitoring in Guatemala. The data collected during the GWB project suggest that early warning for lahars and eruptive activity at Santiaguito may be within reach. The team continues to work towards these ambitious goal and is currently participating in a new initiative aimed at further expanding the monitoring network at Santiaguito, and testing the use of Artificial Intelligence for volcano early warning.

Many thanks to the GWB Committee, SEG staff, and SEG Foundation donors for making this work possible.

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