Nicaragua is home to dozens of volcanoes, many of which belch out volcanic gases. Sputnik spoke to Dr Evgenia Ilinskaya, a vulcanologist from the University of Leeds, who has been discovering just how the gases affect nearby communities.
Volcanoes only hit the headlines when they erupt but some are pumping out persistent volcanic emissions (PVE) all the time and the effects can be devastating for those living nearby.
Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya, an academic fellow from the University of Leeds who specializes in volcanic gases and aerosols, has spent the last year investigating conditions for communities living near the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.
With money from the Global Challenges Research Fund — which has been given $2 billion by the UK government to research problems faced by developing countries — she set out to look at the impact of the PVE.
“We thought that because Nicaraguans tend to be quite religious they would see the volcano as some sort of divine punishment, as it is often referred to as the entrance to Hell, but mostly talked about it as a ‘really annoying neighbor’,” said Dr. Ilyinskaya.
Dr. Ilyinskaya, who was born in Russia but grew up in Iceland, said the volcano emitted a mixture of harmless water vapor and carbon dioxide and extremely toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride and acidic aerosols like sulfuric acid.
While many volcanoes pump such toxic gases straight up into the atmosphere, the gases from Masaya tend to stay low and are carried across Nicaragua by the prevailing winds. When it rains the nearby farmers suffer from an acidic rain which damages their crops.
One of the villages which is most affected is Panama los Amadores.
“There are children who suffer from asthma. The volcanic fumes go into their little lungs. They seem more affected by it, which makes them more tired,” said Freddy Aguirre, a resident of Panama los Amadores, in a short documentary Dr. Ilyinskaya’s team produced.
“One of the things we wanted to look at was why they still lived there. It’s a fairly poor area so people do not have the means to leave, while others bought land there not realizing that the reason it was cheap was the poor agricultural quality,” said Dr. Ilyinskaya.
English version of the #SciComm poster we created to communicate the results of our project. The experiences local communities shared with us (left) are matched with #science observations behind them (right) #Nicaragua #volcano #vumo #GCRF pic.twitter.com/0v2sWWQJyv
— UNRESP project (@UNRESPproject) January 7, 2018
The local farmers cannot grow staple crops like rice and beans but have discovered that some crops, like pineapples and dragonfruit, actually seem to be thriving in the bad air quality.
The Masaya volcano last erupted more than 300 years ago and although visitors who venture up to the top can see lava boiling and bubbling in the crater below, there is no reason to believe a major eruption is imminent.
But it emits gas on a daily basis.
Similar to Volcanic Fog in Hawaii
Dr. Ilyinskaya said the locals referred to it as smoke — humo in Spanish — but that was inaccurate as it was not smoke. She said she had coined a new term — vumo — which was starting to catch on among the locals.
We are incredibly happy and proud to share our new documentary “Living with Volcanic Gases” – a story told by the people from El Panama community impacted by Masaya #volcano #Nicaragua @VolFilms #GCRF #SciComm https://t.co/esUsk2nnq6 pic.twitter.com/GJ6Dk1oeuW
— UNRESP project (@UNRESPproject) January 2, 2018
She said vumo was similar to the vog — volcanic fog — which was emitted by the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii.
The prevailing wind in Nicaragua tends to be easterly so the vumos from the Masaya volcano usually drift over rural areas but occasionally, when the wind changes, it can head towards the city of Masaya — which sits just to the east of the volcano — or north over the capital, Managua, where far more people will be impacted.
She said it had already been known that the vumo exacerbated the symptoms for asthma sufferers but it was not yet clear just what exactly were the long-term effects for non-asthma sufferers.
“What we have done is identify the problem rather than prepare a public health study. For that you would need much more time and money,” said Dr. Ilyinskaya.