3D Printed Models Give Lessons about the Danger of Volcanoes

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View of the Colima Volcano as the eruptions began. [Image courtesy of Hannah Rose Mendoza].

As we drove down the road toward La Laguna la María in Colima, I noticed that all of the cars were headed in the opposite direction. I made a light-hearted joke about the fact that all those other drivers knew something that we clearly didn’t. It wasn’t until I saw the armed civil guard standing in the middle of the road that I started to suspect that something was actually happening up ahead. We stopped in front of the guard and got out of the car. It was only then that I noticed how gray the skies were and the flakes of ash dancing through the air and landing on my car.

The campground to which we had been headed was being evacuated as lava spilled down the sides of the Volcán de Colima and we were redirected to another campground a couple of miles back. There, we set up camp with a clear view of the billowing smoke and the late night glow of the red hot lava. The deep rumbling melody of the continuous eruptions was unlike anything I had ever heard before. We were a safe distance away, and it was breathtaking.

There are few things in nature more terrible and more awe-inspiring than an erupting volcano. The slow time scale at which eruptions occur can give people a false sense of security. The volcano Popocatépetl, located 43 miles southeast of Mexico City, has been relatively quiet and people have built their homes on its slopes hedging their bets against a major event. In the last 48 hours, however, the mountain has begun to make some ominous gestures and has had four minor eruptions throwing ash and rocks into the air and giving rise to a level two alert, meaning residents should prepare to evacuate.

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The 3D printed model in the foreground is of San Vicente volcano in El Salvador. [Image: Ian Saginor]

The current activity has only made even more relevant efforts by a group to educate people near Popo (the volcano’s affectionate nickname) as to the real dangers presented by their topography. The team of people consists of a geology graduate student from Imperial College London, volcanologists from the Natural History Museum in London, and more volcanologists from Mexico City. Their idea was in order for people to really intuitively understand the hazards present in the area in which they live, it wasn’t enough to show them flat topography maps, but rather to give them hands-on experience with volcano flows over 3D models of their familiar terrain. This project was originally the idea of volcanologist Dr. Ian Saginor, an Associate Professor at Keystone College who partnered with Mcor Technologies to begin the Volcano Terrain Project, which we have been following for some time.

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Students simulate lava flows on a plaster model of Popocatépetl. [Image: Martin Mangler]

In the iteration at Popo, they created 3D printed models of the volcanoes, brought them to a village school, and put them in the hands of about 120 students. The 3D printed models were created hollow on the inside so that they could be used as molds, thus allowing each student to have her/his own plaster model of the mountain. Once the plaster was dry, the kids were given syringes filled with red liquid which they dropped on the peak of their mini mountain. Watching the liquid flow down the sides gave them an idea of the way in which lava would move based on the particular topography of their mountain. The geology graduate student, Martin Mangler, described the event:

“In many areas, including around Popo, people won’t necessarily believe you when you tell them something is happening. They’ll say, I’ve lived here all my life, why should I leave? [With these models] they could see how [the lava] would flow and just miss their village. I had the feeling the children took a lot away from this, to have this small-scale representation that shows how close they really are to the volcano and how important it is to be aware of the topography around you.”

More importantly, the kids can take their flow models home and show their parents, helping to encourage an understanding of an eruption scenario before an emergency makes itself present. Hopefully Popo will stop grumbling and settle back into a peaceful slumber, but even should that happen, it’s only a matter of time before it wakes again and this activity is one part of trying to mitigate the horrifying results of a disaster faced unprepared. Discuss this further over in the 3D Printed Volcano forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: National Geographic]

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