Mission to Montserrat

Photograph by Dr. Richard Roscoe/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.

Mission to Montserrat

The tiny Caribbean Island buried almost 20 years ago by a still-smoldering volcano is now brimming with signs of life, a thriving a population of orioles brought back from the brink of extinction, and the looming threat of another blast.

By Christopher R. Cox
Published: 06/26/2013

Editor's Note: Sadly writer Chris Cox passed away in early June. Read a short tribute to Chris, with links to some of the other remarkable stories he wrote during his time with Audubon, at magblog.audubon.org.

Ernestine Cassell, Montserrat's tourism director, offers me a homemade guava jelly--a sticky-sweet treat that should be a signature snack for her tiny Caribbean homeland. But I'm in the modest offices of the Montserrat Tourist Board to learn more about the island's most infamous attraction, the Soufriere Hills. It is the unavoidable elephant in the room--a smoldering, spewing, 3,740-foot-tall (and swelling) volcano that looms over every aspect of life on this beleaguered 40-square-mile speck of a British overseas territory.

Since rumbling to life in mid-1995, the Soufriere Hills has buried the island's historic capital of Plymouth and almost all of its arable land under millions of cubic yards of ash and debris, crippled Montserrat's once robust tourist industry, driven nearly two-thirds of the population into overseas exile, and posed a dire threat to its national icon, the endemic Montserrat oriole. The 4,800 remaining islanders, such as Cassell and marketing manager Ishwar Persad, have slowly rebuilt their lives, as well as a new capital, in a scrubby section of the island they once considered "behind God's back."

"People don't realize Montserrat is still inhabited," says Persad, explaining the daunting marketing challenge confronting the tourist board. "They have this perception it's abandoned, and covered in ash."

The receptionist pops into the office and says, "Ah, take a look outside."

Persad leads the way to the front door. "Oh, my God," he says. "What the heck is going on?"

From my arrival 15 minutes earlier on a clear, sun-splashed Caribbean morning, the world has devolved into a swirling storm of choking ash that has blotted out the blue sky, dropped visibility to less than 100 feet, and cast the chaotic scene in sepia tones. Bureaucrats dash to their cars, and then roar down the serpentine roads. Is this how Montserrat ends, in a haze of ash and panic, without so much as an alarm from the island's volcano observatory?

Thankfully, the tempest is just the sound and fury of an unusual updraft from the east coast of Montserrat, which has picked up tons of ash from a massive, month-old pyroclastic flow--a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock--and borne the particles across the island to disrupt daily life.

Persad smiles wanly. "Welcome to Montserrat."

 

A few years ago fallout from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano shut down European air travel for nearly a week. Other craters and fumaroles continue to simmer and steam away, from Alaska and Oregon to Guatemala and the Andes of South America. But one of the Western Hemisphere's most lethal "hot spots" lies in an unlikely place: the sun-kissed eastern Caribbean, where an unbroken "ring of fire"--a chain of some 17 active volcanoes--arcs from the tiny Dutch territory of Saba nearly 500 miles south to Grenada.

This necklace of lush Lesser Antilles islands rides uneasily atop a volatile subduction zone, where the heavier Atlantic Plate slides west beneath the less-dense Caribbean Plate. As the plate sinks, water trapped in the hydrated minerals and ocean crust is released, partially melting the overlying mantle rock. Gases and this lighter-density magma then rise through the crust and gather in chambers beneath the volcanoes, building up enormous internal pressure. The magma of the eastern Caribbean is too thick to allow the trapped gases to vent; here, the outcome is usually a violent explosion, often with devastating human consequences.

Martinique's Mount Pelee was responsible for one of the world's most catastrophic natural disasters: a May 8, 1902, blowout with the force of 40 atomic bombs that sent a 100-mph nuee ardente--a glowing cloud of superheated gas, rock, and ash--surging down its southwestern slopes to immolate the colonial capital of St. Pierre. An estimated 30,000 people died in a matter of minutes; the lone survivor was a felon confined in a tomblike stone cell that insulated him from the blast. Only the eruptions of Indonesia's Tambora (1815) and Krakatoa (1883) have resulted in more documented casualties.

Nowhere in the Americas, however, are the landscape, lifestyle, and even the wildlife now more visibly affected by volcanic activity than on Montserrat, a mountainous island sighted by Columbus in 1493 and named for its resemblance to the rugged landscape of a famous Catalonian abbey. Radio-carbon dating indicates an explosive eruption occurred around 1600, perhaps a reason local Amerindians had avoided settling the island. Montserrat became an English colony in 1623, attracting Irish Catholics who had completed their time as indentured servants in nearby St. Kitts and sought to avoid further religious persecution. Even today, the "Emerald Isle of the Caribbean" retains a unique Gaelic quality, from the Irish harp on its flag to its most-popular dish, a spiced-mutton "goat water" stew, to celebrating St. Patrick's Day as a national holiday. 

Before the widespread destruction of Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 storm that struck in 1989, Montserrat was considered one of the more developed, self-sufficient territories in the Caribbean, with an electronics assembly plant, a thriving agricultural sector, a strong residential-tourism market, and, most famously, Beatles' producer Sir George Martin's famed AIR Studios, where artists from Paul McCartney and Elton John to Eric Clapton and Earth, Wind & Fire all came to lay down hit tracks. According to Cassell, the then-benign volcano itself was also an attraction, especially day hikes to the fumaroles near 3,002-foot Chances Peak, Montserrat's tallest summit.

But on the afternoon of July 18, 1995, after four centuries of dormancy, the Soufriere Hills vented to life just north of Chances Peak. Unlike Hawaiian volcanoes such as Kilauea, lava in the eastern Caribbean is thick and rarely produces flows. Here, sticky, viscous extrusions typically build around the vent, creating steep-sided lava domes that can rise hundreds of feet before eventually collapsing or breaking off; in Montserrat, the process has produced pyroclastic flows and rock falls continuously for 15 years.

According to volcanologist Barry Voight of Penn State University, who's been observing the Soufriere Hills since 1996, the island is experiencing "a very long-lived eruption."

"It's maybe the fifth-longest-living dome-building volcano in the world, in terms of currently active volcanoes," says Voight, ticking off other hotspots in Kamchatka, Indonesia, and Guatemala. "This is persistently a problem."

And the problem has grown inexorably. By August 1995 heavy ash prompted the first evacuation of the southern portion of Montserrat, including Plymouth, where most of the population lived. Residents were eventually able to return, but as seismic activity grew and an active fissure opened on the lava dome, the capital was permanently abandoned in April 1996.

"There's a colloquial staying, 'Take your foot in your hand and run,' '' says Cassell. "Within a day we had to find alternative accommodation."

In 1997 the volcano entered an even deadlier phase. In the early afternoon hours of June 25, a huge pyroclastic flow roared down the mountain's northeastern flanks for four miles, overwhelming small communities clustered along the cross-island Central Corridor, the island's most fertile farmland, and killing 19 people.

"They couldn't beat what was coming," says my driver, Reuben Furlonge, who hailed from Harris, one of the villages lost in the onslaught.

Less than six weeks later pyroclastic flows ignited many of the historic buildings in Plymouth as they rolled two miles west to the Caribbean coastline. That September another flow torched the east side's H.W. Bramble Airport, which had actually been built on an old pyroclastic delta--the only relatively flat ground on mountainous Montserrat--attributed to the circa-1600 eruption.

"The question I get asked the most is, 'Are the volcanoes connected?' " says Paul Cole, director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. " 'If Montserrat is erupting, does that mean that Nevis or Guadeloupe are less likely to erupt?' There's no connection. They're separate systems. There's no pressure release."

Montserrat's most dramatic meltdown occurred on December 26--Boxing Day--when the dome overflowed and an enormous lateral blast blew out the southwestern wall of Galway's Soufriere; an avalanche of superheated rocks and gases literally erased the historic village of St. Patrick, lying little more than one mile below, leaving only a few stone foundations and a stout, centuries-old sugar mill.

"That was a great explosion,' says Voight, a global authority on the subject of lateral blasts, who shows me photographs of the apocalyptic aftermath. "It was similar to Mt. St. Helens. . . . All the soil has turned into tar. There's nothing there. It's unbelievable. Reinforced concrete houses were flattened. It looked like Hiroshima."

More than a decade on, the Soufriere Hills still steam and rumble in a recurring pattern of dome growth and collapse, immense pyroclastic flows and choking ash. The largest volcanic event occurred on July 12, 2003: after swelling more than 620 feet above Chances Peak, the dome again collapsed, scattering an estimated 260 million cubic yards of rocks, ash, and pumice across Montserrat.

"That's 200 million refrigerator-sized units flying around," says the plainspoken Voight. Up to six inches of ash blanketed the island, giving it the washed-out look of an old black-and-white photograph.

 

The sulfurous smell of hell is palpable even before the Green Monkey dive boat rounds Bransby Point and the dead city of Plymouth is revealed. It is difficult to jibe the old town, with its gracious Georgian buildings, narrow streets, and lively shops, and this modern-day moonscape. Rainy-season lahars--an Indonesian word for volcanic mudflows--have entombed much of the capital under an incredible 30 to 40 feet of debris. Here and there a church steeple or sugar mill punctuates the dun-colored wasteland, which is also littered with house-sized boulders thrown down by the mountain. Every manmade landmark may eventually be swallowed by the discharge.

"It's going to continue for decades," predicts Cole. "Well over one cubic kilometer of magma has been extruded, most of it in ash and pyroclastic flow."

Elsewhere in the exclusion zone, lahars have filled the west side Belham River Valley, suffocating its permanent waterway and the island's only golf course. In early 2010 a gargantuan 65 million-cubic-yard pyroclastic flow erased all evidence of the airport terminal and runway before rolling several hundred more yards into the sea as it extended the coastline.

"Where the land now is, the water depth was 27 fathoms," relates Furlonge, who points out the flow from an east side overlook on Jack Boy Hill. Twenty-seven fathoms--that's 162 feet below sea level--all now filled with the volcanic debris of an astounding island growth spurt.

The new land is uninhabitable, however, and the mercurial volcano has squeezed residents into a tiny safe zone in the northern third of the island, which is buffered from pyroclastic flows by the Centre Hills, a protected, four-square-mile block of wooded, steep-sided peaks that doubles as Montserrat's water catchment and rises to 2,431-foot Katy Hill.

"People have to get used to living with the volcano," says Cole. "We don't know when it's going to stop. You mustn't give people false hope. They've just got to get on with life--develop the north part of the island and just cope with ash fall from time to time. If people think it's going to stop in six months' time and they can go back to Plymouth, that's not the case. You can't develop that area again. The volcano might stop for 10 years, and then start up."

The volcano has also wreaked havoc on this verdant island's biota, especially its endemic national bird, the critically endangered Montserrat oriole. A graceful, eight-inch-long passerine with an elegant, slightly curved beak, the male Icterus oberi is a show-stopping dandy in the wild, with jet-black plumage set off by stop-light yellow underparts, rump, and belly; hardly outdone, females flaunt attractive greenish-yellow feathers.

With very specific habitat requirements--typically undisturbed mesic or moist forest at least 500 feet above sea level--the Montserrat oriole always had a severely restricted range. Even before the 1995 eruptions, the bird was confined to three wooded areas totaling just 12 square miles (or about one-half the size of Manhattan). Volcanic activity has since wiped out almost two-thirds of that habitat, including its former stronghold, the ridges and ghauts (or ravines) of the Soufriere Hills volcano.

In the immediate aftermath of the volcano's awakening, the oriole population crashed, perhaps by as much as 50 percent. Lava flows and toxic gases killed birds outright. Heavy ash falls brought respiratory problems and also damaged the lobster-claw heliconia plants that the finicky birds use almost exclusively to build their hanging nests. According to Montserrat forest ranger James "Scriber" Daley, feral pigs from abandoned farms also destroyed large stands of heliconia, while voracious pearly-eyed thrashers, a regional endemic bird that is widespread on Montserrat, raided oriole nests for eggs and chicks.

Fearing the worst, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which operates an animal "ark" for critically endangered animals on the Channel Island of Jersey, collected eight orioles with mist nets in 1999 to be bred in captivity. They also gathered nearly extinct "mountain chickens"--actually one of the world's largest frogs and found only on Montserrat and Dominica--dying off in droves from the lethal chytrid fungus.

Issued a shotgun and a brace of hunting dogs, Daley eradicated more than 400 pigs--some of the boars topped 75 pounds--which helped to preserve the heliconia and stabilize the oriole population of the Centre Hills, a designated Important Bird Area. Helicopter-borne rangers also made a heartening discovery: a small oriole population deep in the exclusion zone in the South Soufriere Hills, a forested 86-acre IBA entirely surrounded by pyroclastic flow and literally clinging beneath the volcano's rim.

"These birds really do find a way to survive," says Daley, who estimates there are now "close to 2,000 birds" confined to a total range of five square miles--less than four times the size of Central Park. It is a remarkable comeback, given that some wildlife experts predicted the oriole would be effectively extinct in the wild by 2010.

 

Daley, who grew up in the obliterated village of St. Patrick's, considers the tenacious bird a living symbol of Montserrat's resilience and rebirth from the ashes. A new capital complete with port, cricket ground, and municipal buildings is slowly rising on the northwest coast at Little Bay, and Montserratians can already point with pride to a $2 million cultural center spearheaded by Sir George Martin.

The rare oriole is also helping the island venture into avian tourism; a series of hiking trails have been blazed into the Centre Hills and provide an excellent chance to spot several other uncommon restricted-range birds, including the forest thrush, bridled quail-dove, and brown trembler, among Montserrat's 54 resident species.

Daley, who's also the island's most accomplished bird guide, recommends we explore Blackwood Allen Trail, a moderately challenging 1.2-mile bushwalk on the northern edge of the Centre Hills.

"As a forest ranger, I don't work a day," enthuses Daley, a 26-year-veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for Montserrat's fauna and flora. "Believe it, this is my trail."

At the trailhead, Daley notes a pair of critically endangered endemic plants: a yellow-flowered Montserrat orchid growing on an old mango tree and pribby, an evergreen shrub from the coffee family. Within a few strides, we enter healthy mesic forest, passing stands of "stinking toe"--actually locust trees covered in air plants--and old tree ferns. Through the tangle floats the staccato chant of a black-whiskered vireo and the haunting, whooping cry of a forest thrush.

After a quarter-mile walk, we find an oriole nesting hotspot--a large stand of Montserrat's national flower, the red- and yellow-flowered heliconia. Acid rain from a month-old ash fall has burned holes in many of the broad leaves. This could affect the hanging-cup nests that will soon be constructed by the females, which usually lay a pair of speckled eggs--a low rate compared with similar Caribbean oriole species.

For now, however, Montserrat's orioles are in full courting mode. Daley makes an ascending looping call. Within seconds, a female oriole replies, followed by the flat, insistent whistle of a male. It isn't long before we spot the colorful, curious birds in the understory. Daley also notes the iridescent flash of a purple-throated Carib hummingbird nearby; the heliconia is their preferred food source.

"Close to the oriole nests there is always a Carib hummingbird nest," Daley says. "The Carib actually helps keep away predators. They are very, very aggressive birds."

We follow the trace up a steep ridgeline, flushing a brown trembler, and pass the remains of Underwood, an old farming village abandoned in the 1950s and now reclaimed by the forest. The rains have gradually washed away the four inches of ash left from the previous month's volcanic "event," which rose in a mushroom-shaped cloud to 50,000 feet, disrupted regional air traffic, and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages to crops on Guadeloupe and Dominica.

"I came through here with some birdwatchers and we were not able to see one bird," Daley relates. "All we saw was the dust when the bridled quail-doves flew away."

Volcanoes are conflicted creatures, with the ability to annihilate or to nurture, to wear both a fatal and a fertile character. Initially, the acidic volcanic ash kills almost everything; ultimately, the rich nutrients allow the land to regenerate, and even thrive. That's certainly the case at Washington's Mount St. Helens, where stands of willow and alder now color a landscape scoured clean by an immense May 1980 lateral blast.

"Eventually it's fertile," Cole observes. "The thing to remember is, this island has had events like this before, it's had ash fall as bad as this before, and it will recover. [The orioles] will survive."

The trail spills into a clearing, affording a view of mist-shrouded Katy Hill, and then passes through an old, tree-clogged cricket ground that hasn't seen a wicket in a half-century. We skirt a small clearing with freshly tilled soil and newly planted banana trees.

"By the time the rainy season comes in," predicts Daley, "the provisions we'll be getting, mon, massive."

As we near the trail's end, Daley emits one last call. Almost immediately, a female oriole alights on an overhead branch, perhaps 10 feet away, and begins singing. And singing. A rich, melodic, insistent solo that continues for several minutes, borne on the warm wind like a cheeky taunt toward that ash-wreathed volcano.

  

Making the Trip: Montserrat

There are no direct flights to Montserrat from the United States. Several U.S. airlines offer non-stop flights from the East Coast to Antigua (ANU), approximately 25 miles northeast of Montserrat. From Antigua, local carriers WinAir and FlyMontserrat offer multiple daily flights to Montserrat, just a 15-minute hop away. A ferry also operates between Antigua and Montserrat, except on Sundays.

On Montserrat, it is possible to rent a car to negotiate the sinuous roads, but a local driver will help you delve deeper into this island's laid-back charm and affable character. There is a single, western-style hotel, Tropical Mansion Suites (www.tropicalmansion.com), near the airport. Most visitors opt to stay in smaller B&Bs or private-villa accommodations; both offer very good values by Caribbean standards.

No visit to the island is complete without a visit to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (www.mvo.ms), which has an interpretive center and is open to the public Monday through Thursday. Several hiking trails in the Centre Hills Important Bird Area provide an excellent chance to see the Montserrat oriole and other regional specialties; bird guides such as James "Scriber" Daley can be hired through the Montserrat National Trust. Green Monkey Inn and Dive Shop offers boat tours of Plymouth, the Caribbean's modern-day Pompeii, which is off-limits to land visitors.

Few island businesses accept credit cards. The national currency is the East Caribbean dollar ($US1 = approximately EC$2.70).

U.S. and Canadian citizens require a valid passport. There is an EC$45 (US$17) departure tax for international visitors.

For further information, visit the Montserrat Tourist Board website.--C.C.

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