Phil over at Bad Astronomy has posted about my childhood cradle (although I am sure he does not know that), the (still beautiful) island of Montserrat. I grew up there for ten years from ages 4 to 14. Many years later, in 1997, a volcano erupted there (in the “Soufrière Hills”) and devastated much of the Southern part (where I grew up) of the island wiping out almost all traces of where I lived. Much of the stuff of my childhood memories is buried under tens of feet of ash. In my more tender moments, this thought still brings me to tears, actually. (Yes, of course I do know that it is much more devastating for those whose lives it affects due to their living there in the present.) On a side note, I always find it slightly chilling that the mountain that erupted was one of a pair that I used to love to sit on a giant rock and stare at, for long periods, when I was in a contemplative mood (as I often was) when I was young. Furthermore, two weeks before the eruption I was actually visiting the island for the first time since I’d left it as a child. And guess what I did? One day I was in a foul mood over an issue, and I went and sat on that rock again and while brooding, looked over at the mountain for a long spell. (Just in case, I try not to get too angry these days… 😉 )
It turns out that the volcano has continued to rumble and burp over all these years, sometimes dangerously, with a growing dome that forms on top of the whole thing that eventually collapses under its own weight. Learn more here. This happened again, spectacularly this time, on February 11th of this year, creating some considerable damage (but no lives lost, I think – in 1997 some 19 were lost in a later set of pyroclastic flows), and sending a huge plume of ash into the sky to a height of almost ten miles. The photograph you see (click for larger view) is the view from NASA’s Aqua satellite, which aimed its cameras and took some snaps (larger versions from their site here). That’s the huge plume obliterating the island from overhead view (you can see the islands of Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Guadaloupe nearby). It was accompanied by several pyroclastic flows (superfast superheated ash and rock running down the sides) as the event unfolded.
As Phil nicely points out:
The good news is, by studying events like these, and learning all we can about the natural world around us, we can understand what makes these dangerous giants tick. I mentioned that when Soufrière Hills blew in 1997, nineteen people died. That’s on an island with a population of over 4000… so why were so few killed? Because volcanologists — scientists — knew the warning signs and were able to get most of the people out of harm’s way.
Science. It’s cool, and it makes our lives better. It sometimes even saves them outright.