Sleeping volcanoes rumble to life in the eastern Caribbean

Officials report seismic activity, strong gas emissions and changes to the crater lake of a once-dormant La Soufriere and Mount Pelee volcanoes.

The Soufriere Hills volcano erupts in the Caribbean island of Montserrat on January 23, 2010. It has been one of the most active volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean in recent years [File: Wayne Fenton/AP Photo]

Volcanoes that have been quiet for decades are rumbling to life in the eastern Caribbean, prompting officials to issue alerts in Martinique and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as scientists rush in to study activity they say has not been observed in years.

The most recent warning was issued late Tuesday for La Soufriere volcano in St Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of islands home to more than 100,000 people. Officials reported tremors, strong gas emissions, the formation of a new volcanic dome and changes to its crater lake.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency said that scientists observed an “effusive eruption within the crater, with visible gas and steam”.

The government warned those living near the volcano to prepare to evacuate if needed, declaring an orange alert, which means eruptions could occur with less than 24 hours’ notice.

La Soufriere, located near the northern tip of the main island of St Vincent, last erupted in 1979, and a previous eruption in 1902 killed some 1,600 people.

That occurred shortly before Martinique’s Mount Pelee erupted and destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, killing more than 30,000 people.

Mount Pelee is also active once again. In early December, officials in the French Caribbean territory issued a yellow alert due to seismic activity under the mountain. It was the first alert of its kind issued since the volcano last erupted in 1932, Fabrice Fontaine, with Martinique’s Volcanological and Seismological Observatory, told The Associated Press.

While the eastern Caribbean is one long chain of active and extinct volcanoes, volcanologist Erik Klemetti, at Denison University in Ohio, said the activity at Mt Pelee and La Soufriere are not related.

The Soufriere Hills volcano erupts on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in August 1997 [File: RC/JP/Reuters]

“It’s not like one volcano starts erupting that others will,” he said. “It falls into the category of coincidence.”

He said the activity is evidence that magma is percolating towards the surface, although he added that scientists still do not have a very good understanding of what controls how quickly that happens.

“The answers are not entirely satisfying,” he said. “It’s science that’s still being researched.”

Klemetti said the most active volcano in recent years in the eastern Caribbean has been Soufriere Hills in Montserrat, which has erupted continuously since 1995, destroying the capital of Plymouth and killing at least 19 people in 1997.

Seventeen of the eastern Caribbean’s 19 live volcanoes are located on 11 islands, with the remaining two underwater near the island of Grenada, including one called Kick ‘Em Jenny that has been active in recent years.

Source: AP