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Guatemala’s deadly Volcano of Fire spews lava like ‘bubbles in tar’

The Guatemala eruption comes as Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, more than 4,000 miles away, experiences a strong uptick in volcanic activity that began more than four weeks ago. The two outbursts, however, are not linked, said Janine Krippner, a volcanologist and postdoctoral researcher at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia.

“They’re two completely different systems, and they’re also very far away from each other,” Krippner said.

Image: Soldiers keep watch at a restricted area affected by an eruption from Fuego volcano in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes in Escuintla
Soldiers keep watch at a restricted area affected by an eruption from the Fuego volcano in San Miguel Los Lotes on Monday. Luis Echeverria / Reuters

Kilauea is a shield volcano with lava that is relatively fluid, so when trapped gas expands and bursts, the resulting eruptions are typically not as deadly. The Volcano of Fire, on the other hand, is what’s known as a stratovolcano, with more viscous lava flows that can generate volatile explosions.

Guatemala’s deadly Volcano of Fire spews lava like ‘bubbles in tar’
Guatemala’s deadly Volcano of Fire spews lava like ‘bubbles in tar’

“In Guatemala, that lava is viscous and sticky, so the pressurized gas can’t easily escape,” Krippner explained. “It’s like blowing bubbles in tar.”

These differences also explain why the Volcano of Fire eruption has been more deadly. While Kilauea’s eruption has produced ash clouds and lava flows, forcing residents to evacuate neighboring areas, the eruption in Guatemala has generated dangerous pyroclastic flows, which are fast-moving avalanches of rock, blocks of lava and gas.

“These are incredibly fast and incredibly deadly,” Krippner said. “You could be standing in front of it and you just can’t tell how fast it’s coming. It’s very deadly and needs to be taken seriously.”

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