Volcano Watcher

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    Nefi de Aquino looks at the Popocatépetl volcano through binoculars from Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico, on May 25, 2023. (AP/Marco Ugarte)


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In 1994, the Popocatépetl volcano rumbled back to life. Mexican scientists needed people who could be their eyes and ears to monitor the volcano. Nefi de Aquino, a farmer then in his 40s, lived beside the mountain. He’s been a volcano-watcher ever since.

Popocatépetl means “it smokes” in Nahuatl, an Aztec language. The name is appropriate since the fondly named “El Popo” is one of Mexico’s most active volcanos.

The 17,797-foot Popocatépetl has had 15 major eruptions since the Spanish arrived in 1519. There have been many minor eruptions in between. And the mountain almost always smokes.

In 1994, after a decades-long break, El Popo began spewing volcanic ash and gas. The sleeping volcano was waking up.

Someone told de Aquino, the farmer, that police were looking for him. His police interview was brief, he recalls. It went something like this:

“‘Do you know how to read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Write?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you drive?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have a license?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘This one will work.’”

Officers told de Aquino that the Mexican government needed people to monitor the volcano. At first, he was a volunteer with a very specific job: watching Popocatépetl and reporting everything he saw to authorities and researchers at various institutions.

But he wasn’t thrilled with working without pay. So authorities offered to send him to the police academy. After training, de Aquino became an officer. But he almost always worked alone, patrolling remote mountain roads. Mostly, he took photos of El Popo.

Teamwork between researchers and locals—usually folks without much money or education—is crucial to volcano monitoring in Mexico. Hundreds of villagers help scientists in different ways. Often local residents are the only witnesses to key events. Sometimes scientists install recording devices on residents’ land or have them collect ash samples.

In 2000, when Popocatépetl grew more active, authorities declared a red alert. They evacuated thousands of people. De Aquino’s monitoring intensified.

“They gave me cameras, a patrol car, and binoculars, and every day I had to send three photos: one in the morning, one at midday, and one at night,” the policeman says.

Now 70 years old, de Aquino lives alone on a modest ranch on the volcano’s slopes, where he has some fruit trees growing beside a stream. He also raises corn and a few animals. He continues working and has filled his adobe-walled home with thousands of photographs.

De Aquino also helps keep locals informed about the volcano and assists during evacuations. He has flown over the crater too. The first time, he was terrified. “You see the whole base, how it lights up, how its puts out smoke . . . it felt strange,” he says.

On a recent evening, de Aquino parked his patrol truck at the cemetery overlooking his home town. It is one of the best places to view El Popo. Fourteen miles ahead, the volcano sat puffing and glowing.

De Aquino didn’t stay long. Over the previous week, he had sent digital photographs to a slew of researchers at universities and government agencies as volcanic activity increased. Authorities had even raised the alert level. Once again, the world’s eyes were on Popocatépetl.

Despite being past retirement age, de Aquino has been “taking care of” the volcano for nearly three decades. For the past 23 years, he’s sent scientists photographs every day.

“What I have learned from [Popocatépetl] is that while it’s calm, it doesn’t do anything,” he says. “But when it gets mad, it goes crazy.”

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in His works, who looks on the Earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke! — Psalm 104:31-32

(Nefi de Aquino looks at the Popocatépetl volcano through binoculars from Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico, on May 25, 2023. AP/Marco Ugarte)