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.
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."