Introduction: “Decade Volcanoes and Us”


What a lovely little seaside village!

True, that big mountain in the background is a volcano and it will probably erupt someday.

But for the moment, all is tranquility and beauty.

However, this postcard setting has some awful local history.

It only looks nice now because locals rebuilt the town — St. Pierre, on the Caribbean island of Martinique — and moved on with their lives after a natural disaster happened here on May 8, 1902.

Up until that day, St. Pierre, which was then a bustling port city, had been known as “The Paris of the Caribbean.”

The volcano, called Mount Pelee, stirred in late April and had a small eruption on May 5.

Pelee had acted up before, without causing severe local consequences: about a half-century earlier, in 1851, and roughly 50 years before that, in 1792.

So it’s really not surprising, given how little Science knew about volcanoes in 1902, that Martinique’s authorities, who also had an election coming up, repeatedly told residents not to worry.

However, things got more and more scary. Everyone in the surrounding countryside who could crowded into St. Pierre.

Then, on May 8, a big pyroclastic flow rolled swiftly down Pelee’s slopes, blew through town, and went across the water, igniting ships that lay at anchor in St. Pierre’s harbor.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise, either.

Such deadly flows are one of the two major murder tools that Vesuvius and many other volcanoes have used down through the ages to rack up a high body count (the other one, even more lethal, is lahars, a/k/a volcanic mudflows).

But Vesuvius is in Italy and enough time had passed since the last volcanic catastrophe for everyone to forget that such horrors can happen.

Even at “their” volcano, Mount Pelee.

And so, on May 8, in just a few terrible minutes the “Paris of the Caribbean” was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow and some 30,000 men, women, and children perished in fiery clouds of rocky ash propelled by furnace-like hurricane winds.

*****

Of course people rebuilt after the horror passed and Mount Pelee had gone back to sleep . (It is carefully monitored today.)

They’d be crazy to abandon that harbor and the area’s tourist-attracting scenery and fertile volcanic soil.

This is just one example of how volcanoes, despite all the death and destruction they bring, also provide us with what we need to live and to thrive.

Which is why people all over the world keep moving back into harm’s way after such devastating events.

It’s also a fine example of how modern volcanology helps protect us in those danger zones by monitoring the fire giants.

World volcano monitoring isn’t perfect yet, but it is better than anything they had in 1902.

In fact, volcanology as we know it today grew out of things like Mount Pelee’s deadly tantrum.

That disaster occurred during a time when the Western world was satisfying its deep curiosity about Nature through scientific inquiry as well as by developing new technologies and building an infrastructure for global communication.

As a result, the destruction of St. Pierre was not just a local story, as similar tragedies had been in the past.

All sorts of people in distant places heard about Pelee’s eruption and started thinking more about volcanoes and how to avoid such tragedies in the future.

A few — those with education, sufficient funds, and the right connections (or sheer determination) — came to look and learn.

These included Frank Perret, from the United States, and France’s Alfred Lacroix.

Lacroix, among other things, took the first-ever photographs of pyroclastic flows at Pelee for scientific study.

The images also had a practical effect.

Laypeople might not read scientific papers, but those photographs of Pelee’s pyroclastic flows, especially when combined with before-and-after pictures of St. Pierre, ensured that no one would again forget the dangers of “nuees ardentes” — Lacroix’s term for the “burning clouds.”

Early observers like Perret and Lacroix, driven by a fascination with volcanoes, applied their newfound knowledge and gathered even more data at other “Peleean” eruptions, including that of Vesuvius in 1906 and the twentieth century’s biggest blast, from Alaska’s Katmai/Novarupta, in 1912.

And things progressed from there.

The Nevado del Ruiz lahar

Fast forward a little more than eight decades to 1985.

Volcanology was now well advanced and volcanic hazards were much better understood.

In many countries that host active volcanoes, including Colombia, emergency procedures for an eruption were now in place.

And more laypeople were knowledgeable about volcanoes than ever before because of widespread media coverage of spectacular eruptions across the globe, from Vesuvius in Italy to Iceland’s Surtsey, and from Paricutin in Mexico to Kilauea in Hawaii.

Disaster porn was a thing, too (although it wasn’t called that yet).

Feature stories on grisly historic events like the burial of Pompeii in 79 A.D. and the destruction of St. Pierre in 1902 were quite popular.

Nevertheless, when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia erupted in late 1985, about 20,000 men, women, and children died in huge mudflows on November 13.

Unlike the disaster at Pelee in 1902, this was not inevitable once the volcano let loose.

Authorities agree that those people might have survived if warnings had been communicated more effectively.

All they had to do to get out of the way was to walk a few hundred yards.

This tragic failure in emergency management led to the United States Geological Survey establishing a Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in 1986, which still operates today.

The Decade Volcano project

Mass deaths at Nevado del Ruiz in 1985, together with other high-fatality natural disasters that happened at around the same time, helped bring about a United Nations declaration making the 1990s an International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

This is the decade referenced in the term “Decade Volcano.”

And the volcanoes?

In a sense, it was as though earth scientists had said to themselves after what happened at Nevado del Ruiz, “You win this time, Volcano. But we’ll beat you yet.”

And then they got to work.

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

Decade Volcanoes were chosen on the basis of:

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

Ultimately making the list were two volcanoes each in the United States, Italy, and Japan; and one volcano each in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, Spain, the Phillipines, Greece, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Russia (a pair of fire mountains, counting as one entry), and Mexico.

These are the volcanoes that we are about to meet.

It is no slight to the memories of their victims that Mount Pelee and Nevado del Ruiz aren’t on the list.

All active volcanoes are dangerous, some horrendously so, but scientists had to choose carefully to make the most of their limited resources.

Pelee and Nevado del Ruiz were already under study because of the disasters there.

This new program was an opportunity to broaden humanity’s general knowledge of volcanoes, to check out some of the less well known ones, and to work out ways to protect people living nearby.

Or, as USGS volcanologist Chris Newhall put it more formally in his 1996 report on the Decade Volcano project, the goal was to identify major strengths and weaknesses of risk mitigation at each selected volcano and to start reinforcing the weak spots.

Project results

All of this was thirty years ago. How has it turned out?

Rarely, it was like a movie. For instance, they deflected a lava flow at Sicily’s Mount Etna and saved a village.

On a sad note, eruptions at Decade Volcanoes in Japan, Colombia, and Indonesia during the 1990s killed people. Volcanologists were among the dead in two of these incidents.

But mostly it was nerd stuff: scientists holding workshops, attending conferences, and having field trips; meetings among scientists, government officials, emergency personnel, and local representatives; and publication of educational multimedia for laypeople, as well as white papers, scientific research results, books, etc.

That sort of thing. But all of it was directed toward public safety as well as the advancement of science.

A lahar detection system was established at Mount Rainier in Washington State, for example, while some of the other volcanoes got their first monitoring stations.

Newhall simply reports that progress was made at some Decade Volcanoes, while more work is needed elsewhere.

Looking at it as a layperson, I think the Decade Volcano program was a good beginning.

It’s over now, but scientific work on those volcanoes continues today. The lessons learned carry over to other fire mountains, too.

But most of us outside Academia still don’t know very much about it.

Which is where this book comes in.

The Decade Volcanoes and us

Of course, we’re curious about volcanoes.

They’re always cool, and “Decade Volcano” — that’s impressive.

But what does it mean?

Well, you know that now. Congratulations!

But there’s more to learn.

Many of us have a love-fear relationship with volcanoes, and we want to know all that we can about the dangerous ones.

There’s safety in knowledge, after all.

We enjoy lists, too. That’s basically what this book is: a list of Decade Volcanoes in chapter format.

Each chapter has an introduction to the Decade Volcano and basic information about it, such as location, number of people close by, eruption history and style, current alert status, and so forth.

Each chapter also has its own reference list at the back of this book.

Scattered throughout are also links to:

  • Expert in-depth information.
  • Official monitoring websites (when available) that you can use to keep up to date.
  • Videos posted by visitors to the volcano.

However, the chapters don’t go from “least dangerous” to “most dangerous.”

While Decade Volcanoes are very different from one another, they all had to meet the same criteria.

So in that sense they are equally hazardous, though the nature of those hazards may vary from place to place.

Chapters in this book therefore follow no particular order, with two exceptions:

  1. The last chapter. For reasons of national pride, I put a US volcano, Mount Rainier, in this place of honor.
  2. The first two chapters. These two Decade Volcanoes have made world headlines in 2020: The Philippines’ Taal, which had a spectacular eruption in January, and Africa’s Nyiragongo.

I have also grouped the three “killer” volcanoes — Unzen, Galeras, and Merapi — together, too.

However, at the time of writing (mid-October 2020), Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, seems capable of living up to that tired old cliche: “The most dangerous volcano in the world.”

So let’s start with that one, move on to Taal, and then continue through the rest of the world’s Decade Volcanoes as they stand in October 2020.


Note to new visitors to this blog: Welcome! Also, this is the introduction to an eBook I’m making out of posts here. You can check those out via the menu link, but they won’t be as good as the book, since I have cleaned them up and in some cases added more information. The book, hopefully, will be out soon. Thank you for your interest!


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



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