After 400 years of quiet slumber, the Soufriere Hills volcano on the tiny island of Montserrat in the Carribean Sea, came to life in the summer of 1997. The eruptions threatened the original 11,000 residents of the island and even today continue to be a nuisance to the remaining 4,000 people who refuse to leave the island, despite warnings of impending danger. At least 20 people have already been killed, and several villages destroyed. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory analyzes the active volcano and provides information to scientists and residents of the island. The worst of the eruption may or may not have already passed.
Fig.2 Pyroclastic flows reached the Sea and formed a delta at the mouth of a major river (Discovery 1).Residents of Montserrat face many potential dangers as a result of the Soufriere Hills Volcano. A deadly combination of ash, rock, and hot gases form pyroclastic flows which travel down the steep slopes of the volcano at speeds which are often more than 100 miles per hour. Eruptions of Soufriere Hills in June, August, and December of 1997 created pyroclastic flows which blasted toward the sea along the White River at high speeds. Several villages were destroyed as a result. The capital city, Plymouth, was burned to the ground, and then covered in volcanic rock and ash. Twenty people were killed, despite evacuation attempts and warnings. One Hundred seventy-five homes were destroyed and the flows came within 200 feet of the airport.
The monetary amount of the damage has not been calculated because the destroyed towns are uninhabitable. Many people lost everything they had. An excerpt from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory describes the situation shortly after the eruption. The evacuated capital city, Plymouth, burned in Aug. 1997, as a result of the eruptions.“Pyroclastic flows from Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat have reached the capital city of Plymouth. Many homes and businesses can be seen burning from several miles away. Fire fighters have been unable to stop these flames which threaten to consume the entire city. Ashfalls occurred in Iles Bay, Ole Towne, Salem, and several other areas west of the volcano .”
Fig.4 Plymouth was left buried in ash by pyroclastic flows in the summer of 1997. A Montserrat resident watches as the volcano erupts and spews ashes over her town.Since the 1997 eruptions, villages near the volcano continuously experience dangerous ash dusting whenever the volcano spits magma from beneath the earth’s surface. Sometimes, volcanic pebbles accompany the ash and can be dangerous as they fall from the sky. Ash gets everywhere; It kills gardens, grass pastures, and makes the roads slippery and dangerous for travel (Figure 5). In addition, breathing the ash-filled air can, over time, contribute to silicosis, a deadly disease of the lungs. The frequent earthquakes associated with the Soufriere Hills eruptions also pose a threat to residents. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory reported that the probability of future death is one in ten, or 10%.
After the volcano reopened in 1997, a US geological team was sent to Montserrat, and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory kicked into high gear. In order to properly monitor the Soufriere Hills volcano, tiltmeters, seismometers, and gas analyzers were installed close by. Simon Young, A British volcanologist at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory commented on the technology in place. “There are five main areas of monitoring that we undertake. The first and really the foundation of monitoring is recording the earthquakes that go on underneath the volcano, and within the volcano, which are always associated with volcanic eruptions. We also have an electronic instrument that tells us whether the volcano is tilting . . . , swelling, or contracting . . . We collect samples from (the volcano) and . . . measure the gases.”
Fig.6 Soldiers help residents evacuate the island in Aug. 1997In addition to high tech monitoring and constant calculations, authorities have distributed helmets and gas masks to the 4,000 remaining residents. The helmets are to protect against airborne pebbles flying from the volcano and pyroclastic flows. Gas masks are to ensure that residents don’t inhale too much ash during eruptions. People in immediate danger of pyroclastic flows were evacuated and sent to other Carribean islands, Great Brittan, Canada, and the United States. Evacuation efforts continue but some people just don’t want to leave their island.
The authorities on Montserrat have dealt with the danger of eruption well. The evacuation process was very efficient. The remaining residents are somewhat protected from flying objects, and inhalation of toxic gases and ash. As an authority of the island, I might order the evacuation of the island completely and offer money for starting a new life to those hesitant to leave. It may seem terrible to make them leave their homes, but some have already died because they ignored evacuation warnings. The island is a danger zone and it’s almost impossible to predict the next big explosion. The threat of pyroclastic flows is too great to risk human life. Montserrat has already killed and it could kill again.