This image doesn’t look like the news-making Soufriere Volcano on St. Vincent that you may have heard about lately.
The cone that’s erupting is only visible from the other side of this small Caribbean island. This image does give you some idea of how volcanism dominates St. Vincent and its topography.
Towns and other settlements here can only exist along the coast. There isn’t really anywhere to go during an eruption.
The central part of the island is all volcanoes, running north-south and ranging in age from about 3 million years old (and extinct) in southern St. Vincent to the young — fifty thousand years or less — Soufriere cone in the north. (Le Friant et al.)
Soufriere is the smaller, active part of a larger volcanic structure called Somma that goes back hundreds of thousands of years and is still being studied. (Le Friant et al.)
Let’s focus on the Soufriere Crater that you can’t see in the above image, with the help of a video filmed in the crater in 2016. The narrator is Dr. Richard Robertson of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC):
Professor Robinson is reassuring local people because memories of 1979 are still alive on St. Vincent:
So, what is all the current fuss about?
Soufriere St. Vincent is monitored and volcanologists therefore knew beforehand that something was on the way, but let’s face it: that dome is photogenic, and it caught the world’s laypeople by surprise during a slow news period at year’s end.
Soufriere St. Vincent was guaranteed to become a major news story even before factoring in the volcano’s violent history and its probably coincidental major eruption in 1902 along with Mount Pelee on Martinique, two islands away (Pelee, which we’ll check out next Sunday, is currently stirring a little).
Where are things at now?
For one thing, Dr. Robinson is doing more video outreach:
Volcanologists also are putting up more equipment on and around Soufriere to collect data that will help them and others, including government at all levels as well as the UWI-SRC, National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), and Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), to manage the crisis.
Making this task much more difficult is the fact that they are working at the center of an international whirlwind of public interest and excitement.
Unfortunately, this also includes some misinformation.
Please be advised that the information in this article is inaccurate. There is currently NO evacuation order in St Vincent. Please continue to refer to the authorities (NEMO SVG, UWI-SRC) for official updates regarding La Soufrière https://t.co/NT5vAZAQr0
— UWISeismic Research (@uwiseismic) January 1, 2021
Several media sources, including Reuters, have made this error, too.
“Be ready to evacuate” does not mean “go!”.
Still, the mistake is somewhat understandable. Soufriere St. Vincent isn’t playing fair. Instead of following the script — volcano stirs, scientists issue warning and almost everybody gets out, volcano explodes — Soufriere St. Vincent just sits there oozing lava at us.
This actually is normal behavior at many otherwise explosive volcanoes — Soufriere had a totally effusive (lava flow) eruption in 1971, for instance.
As we’ll see below, this volcano alternates explosions and flows.
But volcanological facts of life are very difficult to convey in a world of deadlines, intense competition, and the need to grab a distracted reader’s attention quickly with your lede, written using the fewest words possible.
Volcano eruptions are problematical for the media as well as for scientists and the authorities.
Everybody, including editors and fact checkers, must be on their toes 24/7.
The Soufriere St. Vincent eruption thus far (early Sunday morning, January 3rd) is quiet.
The human drama around it at lay, scientific, and government levels is blowing a storm, thanks to the amount of information we’re all immersed in from the Internet and various social media outlets.
Let’s just kick back and learn some of the basics about this volcano.
13.33° N, 61.18° W, Saint Vincent, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Windward Islands, Lesser Antilles. The GVP Volcano Number is 360150.
Per the Global Volcanism Program website:
- Within 5 km (3 miles): 1,491.
- Within 10 km (6 miles): 15,327.
- Within 30 km (19 miles): 103,882.
- Within 100 km (62 miles): 291,476.
Orange (second highest of four-point system).
- Eruption styles: Explosive “St. Vincent-style”eruptions with lots of material released very quickly — at least four since the 1700s — or effusive lava flows erupting less material (frequent). (Le Friant et al.; Robertson)
- Biggest recorded event: VEI 4 blasts in 1979 and 1812, per the Global Volcanism Program. According to Robertson, volcanic deposits on the island suggest that Soufriere may also have plinian and ultraplinian eruptions at millennial-scale intervals, though this hasn’t happened during the brief 250 years of documented human history here.
- Most recent eruption: Ongoing lava dome eruption.
- Past history: See the Global Volcanism Program for details.
Monitoring: UWI-SRC (Twitter) and NEMO St. Vincent and the Grenadines
(Facebook). The UWI-SRC does have a website, but I noticed over the weekend that it isn’t updated as often as the social media (which are probably what Vincentians follow in real time); UWI-SRC is on Facebook, too.
Feature image: UWI Seismic Research Center, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Anderson, T., and Flett, J. S. 1903. Report on the eruptions of the Soufrière, in St. Vincent, in 1902, and on a visit to Montagne Pelée, in Martinique, Part I. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A.329 (200): 353-553, published by Dulau and Company, London.
Brown, S.K.; Jenkins, S.F.; Sparks, R.S.J.; Odbert, H.; and Auker, M. R. 2017. Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification. Journal of Applied Volcanology, 6: 15.
Global Volcanism Program, 2020. Report on Soufriere St. Vincent (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). In: Sennert, S K (ed.), Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, 23 December-29 December 2020. Smithsonian Institution and US Geological Survey.
Le Friant, A.; Boudon, G.; Arnulf, A.; and Robertson, R. E. 2009. Debris avalanche deposits offshore St. Vincent (West Indies): impact of flank-collapse events on the morphological evolution of the island. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 179(1-2): 1-10.
Oregon State University: Volcano World. 2020. Soufriere St. Vincent. http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/soufrière-st-vincent Last accessed January 2, 2021.
Pyle, D. M.; Barclay, J.; and Armijos, M. T. 2018. The 1902–3 eruptions of the Soufrière, St Vincent: Impacts, relief and response. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 356: 183-199.
Robertson, R. E. 1995. An assessment of the risk from future eruptions of the Soufriere volcano of St. Vincent, West Indies. Natural Hazards, 11(2): 163-191.
Wilkinson, E.; Lovell, E.; Carby, B.; Barclay, J.; and Robertson, R. E. 2016. The dilemmas of risk-sensitive development on a small volcanic island. Resources, 5(2): 21.
Zebrowski, Jr., E. 2002. The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives, Chapter 8: La Soufriere. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=RFpPcNXT6IoC