Volcano Watch — Dual volcanic tragedies in the Caribbean led to founding of HVO

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A pair of devastating eruptions in the Caribbean 99 years ago this week shook the world and, as fate would have it, led indirectly to the founding of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Both eruptions occurred in the Lesser Antilles island arc. The Soufriere volcano, on the British island of St. Vincent, erupted powerfully on May 7, 1902, killing 2,000 inhabitants. The very next day and 150 km (100 miles) farther north, Mont Pelee exploded on the French island of Martinique, destroying the city of St. Pierre and sending 28,000 people to their deaths. The timing of the two eruptions was coincidental. The deaths were preventable by today's standards.

The eruption of Soufriere was preceded by about a year of felt earthquakes. Explosions began on May 6 from within a crater lake. At about noon on May 7, the lake overflowed with hot, muddy water followed by explosions of lava.

The eruption rapidly developed a high column of ash, and pyroclastic flows-among the most dangerous of all volcanic events-rushed down valleys at hurricane velocity. The pyroclastic flows were hot enough to kill, but people in sheltered locales survived.

At Mont Pelee the situation was different and even more tragic. The volcano had been erupting at a low level for several weeks and had erupted mildly in 1851. Still, residents remained unconvinced of its potential power.

Then the eruption turned nasty. By April 27, a lake had formed in the summit crater. Eruptive activity increased over the next few days, sending ash and sulfurous fume into St. Pierre, only 4 km (2.5 miles) away. Residents began wearing wet handkerchiefs over nose and mouth.

On May 5, the 100-m-thick (300-foot-thick) crater wall burst, weakened by acid and broken by rising magma. Scalding water from the lake poured downstream at nearly 90 km per hour (55 mph), engulfing everything in its path, including a rum distillery where 23 workers perished.

Still the residents of St. Pierre stayed on, encouraged by rival political factions to vote in an election on Sunday, May 11. No provisions for evacuation were made. Between 2,000 and 4,000 others streamed into town to hear the politicians rail against one another. Despite some concern about the volcano, the editor of Les Colonies, in what was to be the last issue of the local newspaper, wrote, "where could one be better than at St. Pierre?" Some thought they knew and left for Fort-de-France, the island's second largest town, but about 28,000 remained in St. Pierre to spend their last night on earth.

At 7:52 the next morning (Ascension Day), Mont Pelee erupted with powerful pyroclastic flows and surges. St. Pierre was destroyed in 2-3 minutes. Deaths came from scorching hot ash and air. One survived-a prisoner in a windowless cell partly underground. Pyroclastic flows traveled across water to destroy two ships and 20-30 boats at anchor. In a bizarre twist, thousands of rum casks exploded, sending burning alcohol down streets and out to sea, kindling more fires on ship wreckage.

Many eminent researchers visited Mont Pelee and Soufriere after the eruptions, and out of the ashes developed the modern science of volcanology. Among the scientists was 31-yr-old Thomas Jaggar, assistant professor of geology at MIT. Overcome by the death and destruction, he decided to devote his career to studying eruptions in order to save lives. He searched the world for a volcano suitable for continuous study and chose Kīlauea. The entrepreneurial Jaggar raised the funds, took a leave of absence from MIT-- where he now chaired the geology department--and established HVO in 1912.

How many lives have been saved since 1902 because of improved knowledge of volcanoes is impossible to say. Among scientists, Jaggar perhaps took most to heart the lessons from the dual tragedies. He founded an observatory dedicated to the development of monitoring tools, strategies, and knowledge focused on his goal that-to translate his Latin motto for HVO-"no more shall the cities be destroyed."

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity of Kīlauea Volcano continued unabated at the Pu`u `O`o vent during the past week. Breakouts from the tube system occur above Pulama pali and feed multiple flows that are now tubed over as they descend Pulama pali. Surface flows are seen throughout the coastal flats, and the most active area has been beyond the eastern boundary of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park near Kapa`ahu. Since April 20, a kilometer (0.6 mi) of the private access road to Royal Gardens has been covered. The ocean entry that was observed on Wednesday, April 25 near Kupapa`u lasted only three days. HVO observers witnessed the explosive start of a new entry on Sunday, April 29. As the flow approached the coast, lava poured into a crack parallel to the sea cliff and wedged a block of the old shoreline seaward. The sudden collapse of the block released the ponding hot lava onto the wet sand below, which caused rock fragments to be hurled up to 30 m (100 ft) above the top of the cliff. This ocean entry was inactive by Tuesday afternoon.

No earthquakes were reported felt during the week ending on May 3.