When Geology Backfires

Posted by Arden Wells

I am either the unluckiest or luckiest person in the world. It depends on how you look at it. Natural disasters follow me around the world. So far, though, I’ve managed to emerge unscathed.

One of my favorite aspects of the McDermott funding is the flexibility of study abroad and the encouragement to step outside your comfort zone. I’ve used my study abroad opportunities to see as much geology as possible. In the past six months I’ve had the opportunity to walk out of a Mexican copper mine with bright blue ores in my hands, watch glaciers calve in Chile, hike in the Andes in Peru, swim under lava tubes in the Galapagos Islands, and hang out with Mt. Everest and its neighbors. These beautiful formations are formed by powerful geologic events, many of which are ongoing. Unfortunately, I have a knack for getting stuck in the middle of these events.

At this point I need to start wearing my safety gear everywhere I go—at Boleo Copper Mine, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

About a week ago, Volcán de Colima had its biggest eruption since 1913. Hundreds of people were evacuated and inches of ash covered the local villages. At this time last year I was working in a volcanology lab in Colima, Mexico, researching this volcano. One of our tasks was to fly over the volcano in a 6-passenger plane to collect thermal data. Volcán de Colima began degassing while we were flying above it, which was terrifying. When your pilot says, “It’s okay, if the engine fails we can just float back to the ground,” it’s hard to not feel unsettled. The volcano exploded as soon as we hit the ground.

That moment when you look outside your plane window and there’s stuff coming out of the volcano you’re about to fly over.

Along with my first near-plane crash, my first earthquake occurred last summer in Mexico. I was at a seismic surveying station on top of Nevado de Colima, a dormant volcano about 12,400 feet tall, where we were tracking Volcán de Colima’s activity below. We felt a little rumble, a local fireman pointed to a softly-swinging pendulum on the wall, and that was that. Earthquake, volcano, high altitude….I felt pretty cool.

My second earthquake was this spring in Nepal. I was sitting a little village called Sete in the Himalayan foothills with my environmental studies class when it occurred. Everybody in Sete was safe. When we got a radio signal and found out that the epicenter was near Kathmandu, there was a solemn silence throughout the whole group. This earthquake wasn’t the cool type. It was the really, really bad type.

We decided to stay in Nepal to continue our class. There were aftershocks here and there, but we were sleeping in tents and didn’t want to go back to Kathmandu sooner than we absolutely had to. Our course was eventually cut a few days short after an unsettlingly close earthquake.

The McDermott program and UT Dallas did everything in their ability to keep their disaster-prone scholar safe. My parents were in regular contact with Molly Seeligson, the McDermott Program’s director, until I returned home from Nepal, and I was given the option to be evacuated earlier through UT Dallas’s travel insurance. When I walked into the McDermott office on the morning I arrived in Dallas from Nepal, I was met with big hugs, and the McDermott staff visiting Washington D.C. were immediately called so that they could know I was safe.

Despite the earthquake, my trip to Nepal was absolutely amazing—Kala Patthar peak, at 18,500 ft, with Mt. Everest and company in the background.

From Dallas, I went straight to Houston, where my parents had moved while I was abroad. The week I got there, Houston flooded. Seriously?

In retrospect the Houston floods were a much-needed reminder that tragedies can occur anywhere. I never want my fears to place limits on my ability to explore and enjoy our world. If beautiful hiking trails are along active plate margins and faults, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are risks I’ll gladly take. Besides, I’m not always cursed—I traveled through the west coast of South America for two and a half months without being in the immediate vicinity of any disasters (Chile’s Villarrica Volcano didn’t erupt until I had been out of the country for a whole week).

I’m currently staying at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, conducting research. The day I moved into my dorm here, sirens blared through the streets and a tornado shredded a Walmart nearby. Go figure.

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