Storm chaser takes satellite phones on volcanic expedition

George Kourounis must be ready to erupt.

The Toronto-based “storm chaser” has spent the last week travelling in Ethiopia, where he hopes to explore its most active volcano, Erta Ale, and return with never-before-seen

photos and seismographic data. As if this project isn’t challenging enough — the volcano actually lies below sea level and its summit rises up to 613 metres — Kourounis and his crew have recently run into some unexpected obstacles on the way to Erta Ale.

Kourounis and his crew aren’t the only ones being put to the test. The team will be relying on Iridium satellite phone services provided by Toronto-based Roadpost Inc. as their only link to the outside world. It’s a luxury Kourounis says he’s never been able to enjoy before.

ITBusiness.ca reached Kourounis on Friday in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia.

ITBusiness.ca: How close are you to your final destination?

George Kourounis: We’re having some problems. We were supposed to be at the volcano today, but we’ve had some weather difficulties. There’s been rain, which is almost unheard of here. We’ve had two days of rain, so we’ve had incredible delays. The terrain has been full of mud, the trucks have been getting stuck. It’s been very slow going. We’re hoping to maybe travel by foot tomorrow morning to make it to the volcano tomorrow afternoon.

ITB: I guess this is where having a phone comes in handy.

GK: Well, exactly. This is the only time I’ve had to sit down and make some calls and some arrangements, because now we’re having to do some last-minute scrambling because of our weather delays. We’re not sure that we’re going to be able to accomplish all the things that we set out to do, all of our experiments. This is where we can organize, instead of just driving across rocks and sand and lava flows.

ITB: Once you reach the volcano, what’s the main goal of the research that you’re doing?

GK: There’s two goals. My main goal there is more photographic — I’m planning on doing a descent into the main pit, where there’s a lava lake, and film it for the Discovery Channel. With us is a geophysicist from Germany. He’s brought a Doppler radar and seismograph to do some testing of the actual volcano.

ITB: And what are you hoping to learn, exactly?

GK: How it operates. The Doppler radar will be able to detect eruptions and three-dimensionalize what’s going on in the volcano and record and store all that data. It’s 120 kg of equipment — a radar dish, a built-in computer for logging all the data. It’s quite a device. It packs into three cases. The idea is to haul this stuff up the side of a volcano strapped to the backs of camels.

ITB: And once that data is recorded, do you have to wait until you come back to distribute or process it?

GK: Oh, yeah. In the field here, all you can hope to do is just get what you can and then get out. We’re such a remote area here. It’s literally one of the most remote places on Earth.

ITB: When you were starting to organize this trip, had you originally planned to use satellite technology?

GK: It’s been something I’ve been wanting to use all along. I’ve been doing a lot of storm chasing, videotaping forces of nature. This particular place, because it’s so remote, satellite communications is the only way to talk to the outside world. There are no phones here. There is no power. The closest town is literally a day and a half drive away, and that’s just a fancy shack. Satellites are the only option.

ITB: How has satellite technology change the way you end up working on this kind of project?

GK: It’s night and day. Before that, you’d have to hope that the cellular network reached where you were, and it if wasn’t, you were out of luck, and you’d just have to wait. You’re basically cut off.

ITB: How are you using the data kit?

GK: The original purpose was to have the data kit hook up to the sat phone so that I could do photography here and load them onto my Web site from the volcano. Unfortunately, there’s been a problem with that. Not a technical problem, an airline problem. Because we’re carrying so much equipment with us, I was running over on my weight limitations, so I had to leave my laptop at home. Everything will just have to sit on memory cards.

ITB: What kind of IT expertise did you need for this expedition?

GK: Well, I have quite a technical background. This stuff is more of a part-time thing for me. My regular job is as a recording engineer (at Casablanca Magnetic North). I use a lot of various communications and IT equipment.

ITB: Is there anything you use on the job that you end up deploying as part of these expeditions?

GK: Yes, absolutely. There’s always different ways of adapting something that was designed for one purpose to another. There’s been many instances where I’ve had to “MacGyver” stuff together. I’ve give you one example: I had to build my own wind speed measurement devices, because the ones you can commercially buy typically don’t go high enough to measure things like hurricanes and things like that. You borrow ideas and equipment from different areas and use them for whatever your purpose is, and my purposes are usually kind of odd.

ITB: What if for whatever reason you don’t make it to the volcano?

GK: I’m going to be one upset guy. We’ve gone literally to the ends of the Earth. I can see the mountain in the distance. You can see it through the haze and the heat here. We’re going to get there.

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