In 2016, a sleeping volcano sprung to life in Nicaragua, forming the Earth’s newest lava lake, one of only seven in the world.
While this anomaly was cause for concern for the more than two million people who live less than 10 miles away in the capital city of Managua, its accessibility also provided a unique opportunity to conduct a groundbreaking volcanic expedition.
Explorer and Mountain Hardwear Ambassador Sam Cossman and his cross-disciplinary team of scientists, technologists, and astronauts descended 1,200 feet to the shores of Masaya Volcano’s lava lake to bring the first volcano online with big data, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence. This proof of concept was a step towards developing early warning capabilities for the many at-risk communities who live in constant fear of eruptions in Nicaragua and beyond.
The Space Station was lowered into the crater by way of the world’s first volcanic zipline. A two-stage steel descent line engineered to enable more efficient transport of crew and heavy scientific equipment into this otherworldly volcanic environment. The tent was situated atop a frozen lava lake approximately halfway down on what was referred to as Level 1, 600 feet inside the volcano perched at the edge of another 500-foot vertical drop.
A volcanic descent down to the lava lake was what some might refer to as a “reverse Everest.” Instead of climbing to the rooftop of the frozen planet, it’s a journey to its molten core. Level 1 was the equivalent to the last camp before pushing for summit – or what was referred to as Level 0.
“We sat exhausted after taking shelter from an unexpected storm which emerged with torrential acid rain, volcanic lightning, and swirling superheated toxic gases,” recalls Cossman. “Extraction from the volcano at this point via the world’s largest lightning rod in an electrical storm would not have been advisable. Sitting next to us was miscellaneous breathing apparatuses and sensor equipment awaiting to be deployed for our mission later that evening.”
By descending to the depths of one of the world’s most active craters, a place that no humans had ever explored, the team installed a network of sensors to reveal new insights. The team was driven by a collective desire to improve the livelihoods of the 800 million people around the world living exposed to volcanic threats. Leveraging democratized technologies and cross-disciplinary thinking, the expedition allowed data scientists to identify patterns for a better view of the big picture and to eventually predict dangerous volcanic activity. Supported by Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, the project focused on expanding understanding of the volcanic process. In the future, real-time sensor networks and cloud analytics could set a new precedent for more accurately predicting volcanic eruptions worldwide.
Photos by Qwake, Jack Johns, Thomas O’Brien, Luke Humphrey, Natalia Stone