Don's Diary

May 25, 2001

Been in Nicaragua almost a week. The generator is failing; mirrors have been etched by volcanic fumes; fuses are blowing everywhere; then just when everything seems to be running OK, the PC mouse packs in. An £80,000 spectrometer incapacitated for want of a five-quid mouse.

I fly to Houston for discussions with colleagues at Rice University about the volcanological applications of lasers. Receive news from Nicaragua that Masaya has erupted. I am relieved to hear that my colleagues are OK. Shifts in gas chemistry last week now look intriguing.

I arrive at London Gatwick where I bump into mother and aunt headed for Jersey. Aunt plies me with egg sandwiches and a banana that she suspects would be confiscated due to foot-and-mouth regulations.

I am spotted by colleague and, despite my sabbatical, am asked to work for next week's teaching meeting. I decide then and there to return to Nicaragua.

It's back to breakfast of rice and beans and curious pink juice. The car park at edge of crater is now strewn with lava bombs.

Measurements are proceeding well. We cruise the Pan-American highway measuring gas flux. The ultraviolet spectrometer is set to beep when it detects sulphur dioxide - once for modest amounts, three times for lots. Roar of approval from team when we enter beep zone.

We do more flux measurements, although we have difficulty finding the plume - it seems to be everywhere and nowhere.

Test the ultraviolet spectrometer at night. It is impressive seeing a xenon beam cut through acid fume clouds, but not enough UV is transmitted to measure. A lava-orange moon rises above San Pedro's cone.

Fly home, guiltily leaving the team to pack up 450kg of gear.

Gatwick again, from where I rush to Cambridge for a change of clothes and lunch, then race to Stansted. Fly to Naples for first team meeting of the Multidisciplinary Monitoring, Modelling and Forecasting of Volcanic Hazard project.

The team leader wakes me at 9.15am. Everyone is waiting for me it seems. Keep a low profile as we drive to Vesuvius observatory, where it takes huge concentration to stay awake during discussions.

The discussions continue until midnight. All are enthused at the prospects of project, which will probably focus on Montserrat.

I return home exhausted. Faced with demands for overdue student references, a £3,500 credit card bill and three weeks of electioneering, I consider the benefits of returning to Nicaragua.

Clive Oppenheimer is lecturer in geography, University of Cambridge.

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