On a clear, sunny day, you can see the majesty of both Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from this vantage point. That’s telling you Irazu is no ordinary volcano. And though it’s Costa Rica’s most active, a singular thought that’s bound to make even the bravest of humans run for his life, its enchanting views and commanding presence is a global tourist hotspot - eliciting the thirst for adventure from millions of backpacking globetrotters, an American named Ian Godfrey including. Yes, young, brilliant and dashing, this academician is aware OVSCORI (Costa Rican Volcano Observatory) is pulling all the stops to ensure this mountain giant is as safe as can be. Still, he finds comfort in having a handy thermal camera in tow - telling him everything’s gonna be alright.
No doubt, active volcanoes conjure the scariest of thoughts for anyone on the planet - arguably even more for an American. For one, the horrors of Mt. St. Helens, touted as America’s most destructive volcano, have left a huge footprint on every American mind - passed from one generation to the next. Out of sheer fear. You can say the fear of volcanoes is primal, and you could be spot on. There are but a handful of forces in nature that would count as more powerful than a lava-spewing volcano. As USGS (US Geological Survey) detail: “More than 80 percent of the Earth’s surface - above and below sea level - is of volcanic origin.” It’s no coincidence then that this American count having the infrared camera at his beck a blessing - in the presence of Costa Rica’s most active volcano.
Keeping Track of Earth’s Wrath: from Mt. St. Helens to Irazu volcano
Pacific Ring of Fire: The Planet’s Most Angry Side
Truly, in its raw power, there is nothing as fearsome as a volcano spewing tons and tons of hot lava and molten ashes. When one erupts, it’s like the planet is venting its anger from the inside out in terms of a force that would put to shame the most destructive nuclear missile today. A quick look back at history is enough to cast shivers in any one’s spine. Below are some of the most destructive volcanoes in the history of man measured in VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index, with 1 as benign and 8 as most catastrophic) :
- Tambora (9,350 ft), Indonesia, (VEI 7), April 1815, 120,000 people dead: With volcanic ash reaching 40 kilometers upwards, the eruption caused such a “temperature drop” that global crop failed to put thousands to starve to death in China and typhus to spread all over Europe.
- Krakatoa (2,667 ft.), Indonesia, (VEI 6), 1883, 36,000 people dead: This eruption was so massive that it destroyed the island on which the volcano resided. So powerful is its force that it caused a series of tsunamis that swallowed villages whole costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damages.
In case you are wondering, Indonesia belongs to the Pacific Ring of Fire, an ever-so-large arc in the Pacific Ocean where the majority of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have taken place. For the record, this arc which spans countries from continental Americas to the Philippines harbors 452 active volcanoes - 75% of the world’s total number - and has experienced 90% of the world’s earthquakes.
Small wonder then that not too long ago, Mt. St. Helens (8,363 ft) happened, putting the horrors of a volcanic eruption front, right, and center in the American conversation. On May 18, 1980, the active stratovolcano in the heart of Skamania County, Washington erupted - putting up destruction considered the deadliest and most economically devastating in the history of America. Ever.
All told, 57 Americans perished in the aftermath of the eruption the volcano from the Cascade Range. Lost with all the lives were:
- 47 bridges,
- 185 miles of highway road,
- 15 miles of railways and
- 250 homes.
Yes, that part of America is well within the Pacific Ring of Fire. So is Hawaii and for that matter Costa Rica.
Irazu Volcano(11,260 ft) in Costa Rica last erupted in 1994. It was not as destructive as Mt. St. Helens. It may stand as one of the South American country's most visited tourist spot. Still, we can’t erase the fact that it has erupted more than 10 times since 1723.
Making the volcano the most active in Costa Rica. Even more active than Mt. St. Helens.
Volcanologists: Putting Their Lives on the Line
Sun-Tzu, the great military genius said it best: “Knowing an enemy is half the battle.”
As devastating as volcanoes are, knowing their secrets is the first step in preventing more lives lost - needlessly. It’s for this very reason why governments have formed watchdog agencies (e.g., USGS, OVSCORI) task to monitor and study their behavior - errant and unpredictable as it may seem.
But studying volcanoes is never a job for the weak of hearts. Especially in countries belonging to the Ring of Fire. Thanks to Earth’s movements underneath called plate tectonics, an ever-constant collision of lithospheric plates happens. Such gigantic frictions bring about massive upper-ground upheavals - earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis chief among them - affecting countries from America to Costa Rica to the Philippines.
All but 3 of the world’s biggest 25 volcanic eruptions in the past 11,700 years happened in the Ring of Fire - changing with it the planet. Taking along thousands upon thousands of lives. A disaster that every volcanologist and various expert want to prevent.
At great cost.
For, the endeavor is like playing with fire. Chances are you’ll get burnt in the long run. Costing lives.
USGS detail bright-red lava flows from Hawaiian volcanoes can get as hot as 1,165 F; glowing red ones are at 1,600 F. No wonder lavas are actually melted rocks.
That’s how French volcanologist couple Maurice and Katia Kraft died. The two literally devoted their lives to the study of volcanoes visiting hundreds all over the world. Putting all their studies in film and still photos to accomplish a better way to volcanic hazards mitigation. But on the 3rd day of June 1991, a pyroclastic flow from the Unzen volcano in Japan hit them - killing them along with 40 other journalists.
In the homeland, that’s also how USGS David A. Johnston died. He was manning his post (observatory) approximately six miles from Mt. St. Helens on the morning of May 18, 1980. He was able to report the eruption shouting on his transmission,” Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" - moments before he was hit by the volcano's blast.
Never to be seen again.
The USGS principal scientist who graduated with “Highest Honors and Distinction” from the University of Illinois, was dead by 30. In the line of duty.
World’s Most Visited and a Dashing American with a New Toy
Finding Gold in Costa Rica
Ian Godfrey may not exactly be the type of guy you’d think would be investigating volcanoes. The 27-year old hails from one of America’s sunniest places, Florida, home to a seemingly endless stretch of white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters.
So what is a ‘surfer dude’ doing in one of Central America’s smallest rainforested countries - with less than 6 million people in population?
Well, Ian is definitely no surfer dude; rather he’s an avid learner waiting to spread his wings. A graduate of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, this dashing American carries with pride a double major - a B.S. in Management and a B.A. in Global Business. But that’s not all. He has also correlating minor degrees in Communication and Economics. Add his interests in botany and lighting science portrayed in his avant-garde projects duly featured in the Illuminating Engineering Society and Horticultural Lighting Conference respectively, and you can say this Floridan is prepping for greatness.
A greatness that may have been sparked by his visit to Costa Rica in the summer of 2014.
Despite its apparent oddities, the Central American country is a global melting pot. Like most Central and South American countries, Costa Rica - meaning “rich coast” in Spanish - was colonized by Spain for centuries. Reportedly, its name was applied first by Christopher Columbus - who in sailing to the eastern coast of the country in his final voyage in 1502 saw natives wearing vast quantities of gold.
You could say Ian found his “gold” in Costa Rica. Not only did he choose to come back and study for longer, he decided to write 3 books about it.
Costa Rica is a beautiful county - and that’s an understatement. With 15 types of ecosystems - from pristine coastlines to mountainous evergreen forests - the Central American nation boasts of:
- 75 national parks
- 25 percent of its land protected.
- “No hunting” policy
- Vibrant wildlife
As such, you have a slew of animals that are not found common elsewhere. According to Fox News, among these are:
- Three-toed Sloth
- Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
- King Vulture
- Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
It’s no accident that the first eco-tourists were academicians who upon experiencing the rich biodiversity and immense ecosystem trumpeted the treasure find via various publications.
Yes, this armyless nation is small - its size of 19,700 square miles is about the size of West Virginia (USA) or of Denmark (Europe) - but it has risen to the top. Its aggressive ecotourism agenda - which amongst many others includes a ban on hunting, oxygen farming, and rainforest conservation programs - has led it to become a top tourist global destination. Last year, it bagged the “International Destination 2018” award by prestigious magazine Conde.
Also as confirmed by Ian, Costa Rica is recently ranked #1 in Clean Energy, Sustainability and Innovation by World Economic Forum.
And all the hard work on eco-tourism is paying off the country handsomely. In 2015 alone, over 2.6 million foreign visitors came by. Such massive movement is creating a dent, giving 12.5% of the country’s GDP to tourism. Employing over a tenth of its workforce directly and indirectly.
Definitely, all this whirlwind showcase of economic movement and natural beauty has caught the eye of one Ian Godfrey. And surrounded a highly-educated people, most of whom can converse in English, the young American fell in love. He wanted to contribute - to make the Latin American nation even better, economically.
So much, that when his professor told him that USF (University of South Florida) is offering a global business study in Costa Rica, he grabbed it. Thus, under the tutelage of his teacher, he ventured into the small nation’s most active volcano.
Into Irazu: A Sleeping Giant Chameleon in the Eyes of a Thermal Camera
Though he was not yet born when Mt. St. Helens ripped America apart in 1980, Ian is no stranger to the dangers of an active volcano.
In a statement, he says: “I do know if Mt. St. Helens decides to really erupt the only state that won't be affected directly by the volcano is Florida, which would theoretically be indirectly affected by being overrun with people from other states in need of assistance”.
Before Volcan Irazu, Ian has already set his sights on Arenal Volcano, touted as Costa Rica’s most active for 50 years before becoming dormant, on his first visit. Today, Arenal is most remembered as the mother of Tabacon Hot Springs, one of the country’s most sought-out spa destinations.
All in all, Costa Rica has 6 active volcanoes and 61 inactive - either dormant or extinct. Of the 6, Irazu not only is the tallest at 11,260 ft, it also has been on the national agenda recently, erupting in the 8th of December 1994.
Though no major lava flows have been attributed to it, Irazu did have phreatic explosions, with lahar flowing to San Jose and surrounding areas.
Perhaps a testament of the entwined destiny of the two continental American nations, Irazu’s most famous eruption took place in 1963 - just days prior to the official state visit of President John F. Kennedy in Costa Rica.
That year, this most majestic of volcanoes (VEI 1-3), claimed 20 lives.
Irazu’s main draw, aside from its scenic vantage point, is its active craters, with the largest at 900 ft deep looking like it was struck by a gigantic meteorite. Plus, a lot of attention has been created by the volcano’s mineral-rich lake which transforms “magically” from one color to another, fluctuating from crimson red to emerald green.
All this, seen in even more dramatic fashion through the powerful IR 0005. By detecting heat from its surroundings, the handy thermal camera (also named as IR camera or infrared camera) gave Ian a better grasp of the “hotness” of the volcano. One that normally escaped his mortal eyes.
An excerpt of our interview with Ian confirmed this:
- How did you come to study Irazu volcano out of the many volcanoes of Costa Rica?
Ian Godfrey: I’m studying all the volcanoes, investigating all of the hotsprings of the entire country. Basically, (how it fell into place was taht) Andy had sent the thermal image camera right before I was going to a trip to the Irazu volcano to study that. So those are really the thermal images of high quality that we had.
It’s actually my favorite volcano in the country. And that’s the one I’d like to return to the most. So I have the most experience studying that volcano. I like to watch the different geological aspects chance, the landscape, several mudslides, things like these. And obviously, the change of the lagoon in the crater.
- Why does the Irazu lagoon keep changing colors?
Ian Godfrey: What we know for sure is that if the rainwater increases and plants wash down, organic matter changes it to a much darker color. As volcanic minerals are washed into the lagoon, in the case of an avalanche, for example, the water retains the overall composition, the acidity, the pH. And that change the color as well. As it changes the total composition.
As well, there are gases considered as “sub-aquatic minerals” and often times it can only be chlorine dioxide or CO2 as well. One of the things we find out is that when chlorine dioxide it’s like somebody is cleaning a pool to clean out whatever may be growing in there, this chlorine dioxide can also flush out the color. So these elements can make it much lighter in color. - often light aqua blue.
But if none of that is going on, then rainwater is keeping it much darker. So it really depends on the overall composition. This is one of the geological aspects that volcanologists study. Usually it’s 60 percent of the visits we observe the main crater and the lagoon; the other 40 percent is too cloudy. And we cannot observe. So it make it all the more difficult with that 60 percent window of opportunity..
The main crater is 11,260 feet above sea level. So despite the fact that Costa Rica is just 10 degrees North of the equator, which you might consider very hot, it’s in the tropics, it can be very cold at this high elevation.
- What are the positive aspects of the thermal imaging camera?
Ian Godfrey: I like that I can see 3 different temperatures in readings. For example I can see the ground, I can see the sky and I can see that it’s maybe 20 degrees in the air but the surface temperature at the ground is much hotter.
Also, when people ask me “is that water down there hot?” or “is it cold?” when referring to the lagoon. All I have to do is pull out my thermal camera and I can give them a definitive answer. Best of all, I can show the camera image to them.
A pretty accurate data without going down (the lagoon). For example we discover that the lagoon is 50 degrees fahrenheit. So that was something that I wouldn’t be able to mention for sure with just a regular picture.
The volcanoes are really a base for everything else. They’re the conservation areas where the birds are safe and animals flock to. So whether you’re a bird watcher or like to listen to the waterfall, volcanoes are pretty close and that’s where you have to go. So it’s really all intertwined especially the hot springs obviously. They derive from Arenal Volcano.
- How did the portable thermal camera help you in your journey?
Ian Godfrey: I really want to check thermal anomalies. So it is interesting to go up a volcano with this equipment, with a thermal camera, I can just pull it out and validate for myself.
The government has a very advance program to monitor these volcanoes because obviously a lot of people come to them from all over the world. And if there’s a kind of accident then its stops the ecotourism, a main driver for their economy. So having a complication from one of the volcanoes can have a horrible repercussion. So they really try to avoid that. The volcanoes close there’s a good reason not to go. Maybe they’ve found some kind of earthquakes.
With our thermal camera, we found out that everything matches. Everything is very safe. So in a sense, it made us all relaxed. And the best part’s we don’t have to go too near. It’s pretty interesting to have that material.
How Thermal is Changing Lives for the Better
Thermal imaging may not be a household word yet but it truly is a huge lift. Like never before, IR imaging technology provides key data otherwise not available by our naked eyes, changing lives as we speak.
Thanks to handheld thermal cameras, USGS personnel are able to gather more critical information on Kilauea, a most active volcano on the island of Hawaii. That’s because volcanologists need not be “dangerously close” to know the temperature changes going on in an active volcano. Armed with a wider breadth of available data, the government agency was able to raise alarms effectively, changing the alert level of Kilauea from “orange” to “red” on the 15th of May, 2018.
As University of Hawaii Chair (Hilo Geology Department) Steve Lundblad points out there are a lot of advantages in using handheld thermal camera for measurements. He details, "USGS scientists must often have their wits about them when entering some of these potentially dangerous areas. With a portable thermal imager, data can be captured instantly and easily as events unfold in real-time. Using other methods to measure temperature might require the extra time to install and recover the equipment."
That’s reassuring noting that United States has 169 active volcanoes.
In Times of Fire
Thermal imaging is especially instrumental in saving lives in times of fire. As it enables firemen to have a clearer analysis of a scene, it becomes a most effective tool in finding individuals still trapped inside a fire - victims who may be unconscious due to smoke inhalation.
And in such a life and death situation where every second matter, a thermal imaging allows a firefighter to respond faster - and more efficiently. Moreover, first responders through this electronic device can easily identify the seat of the fire, allowing structural analysis to be reached in record time.
Fortunately, thermal cameras nowadays are not only getting more powerful, they’re also vastly reduced in terms of price. Where firefighters in America used to tag along a backpack-sized thermal imager prized at $50,000 and over, today handheld units are available at a fraction of the usual price of the .
For Your HVAC Needs
Think about all the circuitry involved in your AC. From fuses to breakers to connections and hoses. When a system is down, identifying which part is defective can take hours - days even. Plus, traditional measurement devices like a spot temperature gun cannot effectively point out the broken part. The problem can easily pile up - raising greater concerns over time.
Not with an IR camera. By detecting the presence of heat (or its absence), technicians can easily detect which part of the HVAC circuitry needs immediate attention. Even without physically seeing it all. It cuts repair time by half.
Most importantly, it gives homeowners the power to look over his abode. With regular thermal check-ups, you can stop electrical short circuits dead on its tracks. By viewing changes in colors, you can identify which unit in your HVAC is failing and which is operating inefficiently.
In Caring for Animals
Surprise! Surprise! You may not think thermal cameras have anything to do with health. On the contrary, veterinarians have found them to be most useful. Just to give you an idea, equine imaging via thermal can detect if a horse is ready to race or not.
As it can look into bones and tissue, IR cameras can check for animal conditions that are not easily diagnosed via MRI, CT Scan or X-ray. By looking into the heat footprint of an animal, vets can pinpoint the actual source of pain. And provide an objective assessment of a problem - whether it’s muscle injury, arthritis or plain inflammation. It saves the doctor a lot of time and most importantly saves the animal effectively.
For Your Security
Thermal camera camera can see beyond what our normal sight can. So it can see people hiding behind bushes around your premises. Police officers are routinely using it for instance in capturing criminals. One story is of a thief who was caught hiding under tarpaulin sheets in a boat along a port. He was caught ‘red-handed’ as his heat signatures show his true colors.
In the house, it allows you to track pests moving about in pipes stealing your food in the dead hours of the night.
During the outbreak of swine flu, airports were reported to use thermal imaging to scan whether travelers are in fever. No need to stick a thermometer to get the information needed.
As the visionary Ian Godfrey confirms: “Thermal imaging technology is really unique. It has a lot of potential, moving forward into the future. One thing it can do is it helps ease people’s minds. You know, If they’re considering a trip to Costa Rica, an ecotourism trip, and you may not want to go so close to a volcano, it’s a technology that an observation institution might be able to take some pictures and put them on the website and say,”Hey this part is open. We allow people to go there because we feel that it’s pretty safe. And thermal imaging technology plays a role that seismographs and other gas-monitoring instruments may not be able to.”
Giving People Peace of Mind
“As somebody looking at Costa Rica, thermal imaging really gave me peace of mind. To say, hey I’m comfortable going up to this volcano. I saw a thermal image and there’s not anything that can harm. It’s very safe so I’m gonna go.”
Nota bene: Ian Godfrey has since returned to his hometown in Florida - finishing 3 books over his exploits in Costa Rica. One book is about volcanoes with title “Investigating the Volcanoes of Costa Rica”; another is about Tabacon Hot Springs. The last book he’s to publish is all about Costa Rica, aptly titled “Revealing the Capital City of Costa Rica”.
Among the many things he was bringing, Ian was tagging along in his journey to Irazu is PerfectPrime’s IR0005, a powerful 35,200-pixel thermal camera valued for its extremely affordable price tag.