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Rudi Kiefer: Here’s hoping Guatemala quake was isolated event
Rudi Kiefer
The movie “Dante’s Peak,” released 21 years ago, conveyed a mostly realistic vision of what just happened in Guatemala on June 3.

Unlike Hawaii’s Kilauea, where smooth-flowing lava crept leisurely across the landscape last month, fictional Dante’s Peak is a stratovolcano. So is Fuego, its real-life Guatemalan cousin, 12,332 feet tall. Stratovolcanoes are the violent cousins of the Hawaiian volcanoes.

They can explode with incredible violence, sometimes blowing their own tops off.

Mount St. Helens in Washington did that in 1980. Crater Lake, Oregon, has produced by an even bigger explosion, leaving a structure that resembles a giant, water-filled tree stump. About 7,000 years ago, that volcano sent an estimated 12 cubic miles of material into the air.

Volcán de Fuego, located only 25 miles from Guatemala City’s center, had a different surprise in stock: a nuée ardente (“burning cloud”), which is the common French term volcanologists use for a pyroclastic flow. It isn’t anything like the lava flows we’ve seen in Hawaii. The nuée ardente is a hellish mix of lava fragments, stones from the body of the volcano and superheated steam with temperatures, according to

U.S. Geological Survey, rising up to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Instead of “moving at the speed of turtle,” as a resident of Leilani Estates in Hawaii described it, the nuée ardente rushes down the slope at a speed of 50 mph. “Dante’s Peak” did a good job showing the dangers of such a flow, although escaping through it in a pickup truck with burning tires was a stretch of the director’s imagination.

People of El Rodeo village in the foothills of the Fuego volcano weren’t as fortunate: 69 were confirmed killed by the nuée ardente that spilled downhill like hot foam, and 190 people were listed as missing during the week after the eruption.

Like the Cascades in California, Oregon and Washington, Guatemala is located on the boundary of two tectonic plates. These huge pieces of the mosaic that make up the earth’s crust are constantly pushing and rubbing against one another. The resulting zone of earthquakes and volcanoes extends all the way from Alaska’s northern end to Tierra Del Fuego, the southernmost point in South America.

Given the fact that another Guatemala volcano, Volcan de Agua, is just 9 miles east of Fuego, we can only hope that the June 3 eruption was an isolated event.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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