Xela, Guatemala

A Collaboration

Imagine having a volcano in your backyard that has erupted for the past 93 years. Around the world, volcanoes threaten nearly half a billion people. Lava domes, in particular, can erupt for decades, generating a myriad of hazards to life and property. More than 1.9 million people live within 10 km of lava domes that have been active since 1900, making improved understanding of eruption processes at active lava domes critical. In November 2017, National Geographic Explorers Stephanie Grocke, Ross Donihue, and Gabby Salazar will be embarking on a month-long expedition to Guatemala to conduct innovative science on the top of an active volcano in Guatemala while also producing a multimedia outreach campaign that will highlight the risks associated with living near an active lava dome. Stephanie, a volcanologist, will be applying cutting-edge photogrammetry techniques to the active Santiaguito lava dome in Guatemala, to monitor volcanic activity using ground-based, time-lapse photography. Gabby and Ross, both visual storytellers, will be using multimedia to bridge the gaps between volcanologists and the hundreds of thousands of people that live within ~10 km of the active Santiaguito volcano, in the city of Quetzaltenango. Working in collaboration, this team will help connect the scientists studying volcanoes to the people living around them.


Stephanie Grocke

Stephanie Grocke is a volcanologist whose research has focused on explosive volcanism. As a National Geographic Explorer and a U.S. Fulbright-NSF Arctic Research Scholar, Stephanie has conducted research on volcanoes in the Central Andes of South America, Iceland, and Central America. Currently, Stephanie is interested in bridging the gap between scientists studying active volcanoes and the people that live around them. To learn more about Stephanie’s work and research, click here


Gabby Salazar

Gabby Salazar is a National Geographic Explorer and a past President of the North American Nature Photography Association. As a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Photography and an Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Gabby has worked on environmental photography projects across the world, from Indonesia to Peru. Gabby is currently pursuing a MSc in Conservation Science at Imperial College London. Click here to see more of her work.


Ross Donihue

Ross Donihue is a designer that specializes in map-based storytelling. As a National Geographic Explorer, Ross has led cartographic expeditions around the world. Ross uses visual communication to connect people with places. He started Maps for Good in 2012 with the mission to create maps and digital media for conservation frontiers in the US and abroad. Ross is currently pursuing a Masters degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Click here to see more of his work.

Education And Outreach

While on the summit of Volcán Santa Maria we participated in a National Geographic Explorer Classroom. Click here to see the full video.

A screenshot from our National Geographic Classroom Broadcast showing a classroom full of students that was tuning in live.
Stephanie, explaining an infographic of the Santa Maria-Santiaguito Volcanic System to a group of students at the San Carlos public university in Xela, Guatemala.
Armando, describing his career as a mountain guide in Guatemala.
Ross, explaining the process of building our photo exhibit with a photo of his tent serving as an example of organized chaos.
Gabby, walking the students through the images in our photo exhibit.
Students watching the activity at the Caliente dome in 2012 and learning how scientists use photogrammetry to measure changes in the surface of the lava dome through time.
Answering questions following our presentation.
The Volcano Expedition Team, happy to have had such a great audience!
Stephanie standing outside of the tourism board in Xela, just one block from the central plaza. We opened the exhibit, titled Living with Volcanoes, to the public on December 1st and donated it to the Insititue Guatemalteco de Turismo, also known as INGUAT.
The exhibit space, cleaned and ready for the public opening.
Stephanie standing within the exhibit space after preparing the space for the opening.
The exhibit space and the team photo.
Gabby and Stephanie, just before the exhibit was opened to the public.
Armando, being interviewed by the local press.
Stephanie giving a short introduction to the exhibit and Guatemalan volcanoes and the potential hazards they pose.
Gabby and Stephanie with a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the exhibit opening.

Photo Exhibit

This is a virtual reconstruction of our photo exhibit that we have donated to the local tourism board in Xela, Guatemala.
Click on the images to make them bigger.

The Ring of Fire.
A volcano plumbing system.
The Santa Maria-Santiaguito Volcanic System.
Frequent, small to moderate, explosions are common at Santiaguito. Here, a plume from Caliente rises above the clouds.
Explosive eruptions from Santiaguito produce pumice, a light and porous volcanic rock.
Here, lava flows from Santiaguito degass as they travel down the flanks of the lava dome.
One of the greatest hazards from volcanoes is a lahar, a volcanic mudflow that occurs frequently in the rainy season. Lahars from Santiaguito can have a lot of energy and threaten communities, like El Palmar, shown here, that was devastated in the 1980’s from lahars.
Lava domes, like the volcanic complex Santiaguito, can erupt for decades, generating myriad hazards to life and property. More than 1.9 million people live within 10km of lava domes that have been active since 1900. For this reason, it is important to study active volcanic systems.
Scientists use various tools to monitor active volcanoes with the goal of predicting future eruptions. Photogrammetry captures photographs that record how the dome changes through time.
Since 2012, photos from photogrammetry have tracked how the surface of the Caliente lava dome has changed through time. With photogrammetry we can see that Caliente is still very active and that activity changes with time.   2017, activity at night on the right side of the dome.
Photo from photogrammetry that captured the beginning of an explosion, 2017.
Scientists and technicians at the Observatorio Vulcanologica del Volcan Santiaguito (OVSAN) monitor volcanic activity. Continuous observations of the activity help us understand how the volcano works, and alert local communities of the hazards from Volcan Santiaguito.
To study volcanoes, scientists spend a lot of time in the field, often in remote locations. Here, a group of scientists camp near the summit of the Santa María volcano.
A woman walking to work in the town of El Palmar, a region that has been severely been affected by volcanic threats.
Agriculture around volcanoes benefits from the fertile soil.
Many volcanoes are sacred sites, including the Chicabal lagoon, an extinct volcano.
Volcan Santa Maria is a popular hiking and adventure destination for locals and tourists. Here a tourist hikes down from the summit toward Xela.
After volcanoes become inactive, wildlife and animals return. Some species are onlyfound in high mountain environments. This lizard only lives in the highlands of Guatemala.
In summer, flowers bloom on the summit of Volcán Santa Maria. Early morning light casts a shadow of the Volcán on the landscape below.
Hot springs like Fuentes Georginas exist because of the geothermal heat of the Zunil volcano, Tourists and locals alike can relax and enjoy the benefits of volcanic landscapes.
This project was an international collaboration between Americans and Guatemalans. From the United States, Gabby, Ross, and Stephanie, traveled to Guatemala to help tell the story of the Santa Maria-Santiaguito volcanic system. It was only possible to produce this story with the help of many people, who have devoted much of their lives to living within and protecting the beautiful volcanic landscapes of Guatemala. These people include local guides, police, scientists, and technicians. This project was supported by a National Geographic Society Grant.

Behind The Scenes

Here are some of our latest expedition photos
Click on the images to make them bigger

Stephanie, setting up photogrammetry equipment on the summit of Volcán Santa Maria.
Ross and Stephanie taking in the view from Volcán Santa Maria at sunset.
Armando, Ross, and Stephanie concentrating on dinner, a yummy Indian curry.
A photogrammetry camera setup, with the chain of Guatemalan volcanoes in the background, including the active Fuego volcano that had just erupted.
The group from the first summit trip up Volcán Santa Maria (top left to right: Armando, Stephanie, Tito Encarnación; bottom left to right: Manuel Maldonado, Rick, Gabby).
Ross, taking shots of the active lava dome from the summit of Volcán Santa Maria.
The Volcano Expedition Team (from left to right: Ross, Stephanie, and Gabby).
Ross and Stephanie watching an eruption plume rise through the clouds from the active Caliente Dome.
Stephanie and Gabby working together to cook up quesadillas for lunch.
An inside look into Ross’s tent.
Gabby, on watch for an explosion from the active domes below.
Stephanie and Gabby hiking down Volcán Santa Maria with packs full of camera equipment.
A view from the Santa Maria trail, with Gabby looking down toward the city of Quetzaltenango (Xela).
Armando, our expert guide, hiking up toward the summit of Volcán Santa Maria.
Taking in the sunset from our base camp on Santa Maria.
Campsite on Santa Maria with a view below of the cities located close to the flanks of the active Santiaguito dome.
Stephanie and Gabby setting up the satellite unit for the live classroom broadcast.