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Monteserrat: An Island Under Siege

Montserrat: An Island Under Siege

by Kathy Svitil

In the early morning hours of December 26, 1997, the residents of the island of Montserrat, a British colony in the Leeward Islands of the eastern Caribbean, were treated to a belated -- and unwelcome -- Christmas surprise. At about 3 a.m. that day -- a British holiday known as Boxing Day -- the island's Soufriere Hills volcano violently exploded. The eruption of the volcano, located on the southern part of the island, caused the collapse of a lava dome that had been steadily building in the volcano's crater for over two months. The collapse caused an avalanche of volcanic debris to descend on the surrounding villages, which, in turn, triggered a small tsunami in the waters off shore. An ash cloud, which reached some 47,000 feet into the air, temporarily darkened, and eventually blanketed, much of the 40-square-mile island.

Despite its destructiveness, the Boxing Day event -- the world's worst volcanic explosion in years -- took no lives. That's because, four months earlier, the southern two-thirds of the island had been declared off-limits, and more than half the island's 11,000 residents evacuated, after earlier eruptions had rocked the colony. On June 25, 1997, after two years of precursory swelling and shaking, Soufriere Hills had uncorked a particularly damaging pyroclastic flow -- a fiery cloud of ash, gas, and rock -- that had killed at least ten residents and destroyed nine villages. And, in early August, another eruption had devastated the capital city of Plymouth.

Volcano erupting

The Soufriere Hills volcano in February, 1996.

Soufriere Hills has been relatively quiet in the months since the Boxing Day collapse, but experts at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory -- which was established after the June 25 disaster -- aren't ready to say that the worst is over. In fact, a new dome of lava has been building since the end of 1997, and volcanologists suspect that another collapse is likely. In an evaluation of the volcanic risk, conducted at the end of April, researchers concluded that it was "more probable that there will be further significant eruptions of the volcano, than that the volcanic activity is now in a period of permanent decline. The threat from the major hazards of explosive activity and dome collapse remain," the report continued, and "even with no further eruptions the volcano will remain hazardous over the next six months to two years from volcanic mud flows, landslides triggered by non volcanic processes and volcanic dust in the southern parts of Montserrat."

Photo: © Chris Mason.

Article: Mountains of Fire | Sidebar One: Volcanoes of North America | Sidebar Two: Montserrat | Sidebar Three: Other Planets | ANIMATION
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