Decade Volcanoes – A New Series of Posts

What a lovely little Caribbean seaside village! True, that big mountain in the background is a volcano and will probably erupt someday, but for the moment all is tranquility and beauty.

Or so it seems. The ghost of the past haunts those streets and country lanes.

That is the town of St. Pierre, on Martinique. The volcano is Mount Pelee. These names might sound familiar to you, though they don’t seem to fit the image at the top of this post.

You are thinking of St. Pierre as it was after May 8, 1902.

Up until that day, St. Pierre was a city known as “The Paris of the Caribbean.” Then this happened (warning: some graphic images):

Roughly 30,000 people died in just a few minutes. Others perished in subsequent eruptions until Pelee settled back down after a few terrible months.

It has slumbered, more or less, ever since and settlers have moved back in.

Of course they have. It’s part of human nature to forget the trauma of such events at some point. Too, the natural advantages of a site like that mean it isn’t going to remain uninhabited for long.

The best book I’ve read on this tragedy is by Ernest Zabrowski (disclosure: I’m not connected with him in any way).

He notes that volcanologists learned many things from this eruption. For example, it was the first time that pyroclastic currents were photographed (they were known by their French name — nuee ardente — for decades after that).

And viewing the ruins of St. Pierre shortly after its destruction probably helped turn Frank Perret into one of the first modern volcanologists.

Fast forward eight decades. Volcanology was well advanced and volcano hazards were much better understood. Nevertheless, when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia stirred in November 1985, about 20,000 people died, even though many of them could have simply walked a hundred yards or so to safety.

It was a failure in emergency management that ultimately led to the formation of the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, and together with other natural disasters, a United Nations declaration of the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

That is the “decade” referenced by “Decade Volcano.”

The UN did not fund volcano research, but the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI) singled out 16 high-risk volcanoes for additional study.

Mount St. Helens isn’t on the list, but its May 1980 eruption also moved volcanology forward in many ways. (Image: woodleywonderworks, CC BY 2.0)

Per Cas, the criteria for selection included:

  • Relatively recent eruptive activity
  • Multiple possible hazards
  • Large nearby population, facing high risk from the volcano
  • Reasonable access for study
  • Support from local scientific and governmental organizations

That is the “volcano” part of “Decade Volcano.”

The experts eventually came up with two volcanoes each in the United States, Italy, and Japan; and one volcano each in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Spain, the Phillipines, Greece, Guatemala, Democratc Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Russia (a pair of fire mountains, counting as one entry), and Mexico.

It’s no slight to the memories of the tens of thousands of people they killed that Pelee and Nevado del Ruiz aren’t on this list. All active volcanoes are dangerous, some horrendously so, but scientists had to choose carefully to make the most of their limited resources.

USGS volcanologist Chris Newhall wrote, in his 1996 report on the program, that the goal was to identify major strengths and weaknesses of risk mitigation at each volcano and to start reinforcing the weak spots.

Those 16 Decade Volcanoes were considered the best sites to accomplish this goal.

That was 30 years ago. How has it all turned out?

There has been progress, per Newhall and others, but more still needs to be done.

Survivors never forget. Work on Decade Volcanoes began in the 1990s, but it continues today.

We will take a closer look at each Decade Volcano over coming weeks, starting next week with the one that has erupted most recently: Taal Volcano, which already has a post on that eruption.

Featured image: Ze Moudong via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0


Blakeslee, S. 1997. Facing the peril of Earth’s cauldrons.

Cas, R. A. F. 2019. IAVCEI: from small beginnings to a vibrant international association. History of Geo- and Space Sciences, 10(1): 181-191.

European Volcanology Society. n. d. Decade volcano program 1990/2000.

Newhall, C. 1996. IAVCEI/International Council of Scientific Union’s Decade Volcano projects: Reducing volcanic disaster. status report. US Geological Survey, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. 2020. Decade Volcanoes. Last accessed March 12, 2020.

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