Tag Archives: past

Doing historical volcanology

So every year I say I should do more blogging…we will see how that goes. But in the mean time, I asked Twitter for some ideas of what to write and got this suggestion from my friend and fellow PhD volcanologist Geoff Lerner (he is doing some awesome stuff out in New Zealand, do check out his Twitter!)


So using inspiration from Geoff…I’m going to attempt to give a general overview of how historical volcanology works.

dog and book gif

To begin: how did we come to know about the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, and the destruction of Pomepii and Herculeum? The observations of Pliny the Younger. He was a man who lived in the distant past who observed a volcanic eruption. We also have countless volcanology studies about the eruption (and others that happened since). We also have unearthed archaeological sites and artefacts. Thanks to all this evidence, we now know that this eruption happened and its impacts on the surrounding society.

…and I guess we have the movie now?

A historian is a person who researches past events that relate to humans through narratives. Volcanologist one way or the other look at past volcanic eruptions…so you could say we are “Earth” historians.

Look I just googled “history gif” and I do not know why it is of an animated iceskater okay?

Volcanology in itself is diverse and researchers come from all different backgrounds: geology, petrology, geophysics, engineering, geochemistry  – I labelled here a number of “physical” science disciplines. In volcanology we are increasingly seeing the inclusion of the “social” sciences when exploring the impacts of volcanism on an exposed population.

Historians use tangible (sites, objects, instruments, remains) and intangible (memories, narratives, indigenous knowledge) artefacts. So a historical volcanologist uses tangible and/or intangible artefacts to understand past volcanic events from the human perspective. For me, I have mainly used intangible artefacts, with written records in archives and interviewing people remembering an eruption. Archaeologists are particularly good at using tangible artefacts, with plenty of research out there of looking at deep past volcanic events and their impacts on early human civiliations.


If a volcanologist looks at past volcanic events, combining the understanding of how people responded to the event within the historical and social context, with the scientific understanding of volcanism, it provides a richness and numerous perspectives of the story of an eruption that may not have been captured if doing a single disciplinary approach. Looking at the past, we can see how much the volcano and the society that live around it, have changed or not. Further social volcanology studies for a given volcano would benefit from the historical perspective in this way. Furthermore, a “traditional” physical volcanology study would complement a historical volcanology study and vice versa. One or the other could find things the other had not found before, which could lead to a fuller picture of what happened!


So to end this post I have compiled a little checklist I have gained during my PhD doing a historical volcanology project:


  1. Whatever “physical” science approach to volcanology you use, think outside of the box of how it would be beneficial to the society who has to live with the particular volcanic region you are researching;


2. This is important for every volcanologist – do your research on your volcano: its past activity, current activity, what signs and hazards it is known to produce and any probablitic scenarios of any potential future impact on society;

3. And now we take it up a notch: do your homework on your volcano in the context of the society who had to live with it. Here I mean the social and cultural significance of the volcano, what they knew and do not know about it, and perhaps most importantly (if using intangible artefacts): what language was used to describe what they saw and felt about the volcano? In times of activity would be a priority, but if you have the time (and money) look at quiet periods too;


4. And now, if you are looking at a historical eruption and you want to see what is in the archives* ask yourself: has the language to describe any volcanic phenomena associated with the volcano, similar or different to the present? You will need to be very aware that in the past, especially before the modern notions of “volcanology” as a science, people were very descriptive when observing volcanic activity (think “curtains of fire”, “it grew dark during the day”, “we heard rumblings” and so on);

*Using archives first requires identifying a collection: in most places this is available online, others it requires contacting the specific department and arranging a visit to see what is there. If a collection may prove useful, be prepared to go down some rabbit holes and not come back up for a while…it takes perseverance to find what you are looking for.

rabbit hole
Actual representation of what it is like doing archival work

5. Be respectful of the words written/spoken, objects etc. of those who are no longer here. As a volcanologist, and as a scientist, you can interpret what was observed with rigour but never dismiss other people’s own interpretations when they were within the moment, observing a phenomena they may have never witnessed before. Like all disasters, volcanic eruptions induce stress and anxiety (usually temporarily, but sometimes longer), occurring in their own social and cultural context that is different from your own;

6. Be extra mindful when researching volcanoes in countries that were colonised/occupied. I say this because written records that have survived are usually of one dominant “voice” and many others have either been manipulated or silenced. For my investigations into the 1812 and 1902-1903 eruptions of La Soufrière, I found that the voices of women, children, African slaves, freed persons of colour and indentured servants were almost entirely absent or manipulated (the experiences of myself, my family and POC friends allowed me to have a trained eye to stereotypical/racist language and behaviour). I tried to correct this by doing my interviews for the 1979 eruption by including men and women of varying ages and ethnicities – remember: each voice who provided a narrative is valid as many people experienced these violent events with their own education, experiences and perceptions;

7. Seek out local historians, they may know information that you could not find. I have been in contact with a local Vincentian historian who has been super helpful in pinpointing locations that no longer exist on maps today – then of course give credit where credit is due;

8. Lastly, give back! I have used documents from multiple archives in 3 different countries, all have had a dedicated curator/librarian to help me find what I needed and are super keen to help in anyway possible. As a way of saying thanks and to provide knowledge for any future researcher, give a copy of your finished work to the archive you used. For public dissimination, certainly put the country whose volcano you are researching first – you may be as creative and collaborative as you like!

Historical volcanology has been a new and exciting avenue to me, I have learned a lot about the volcano, the country, its people and myself. I know people say “leave the past in the past” but how else would we know how to better ourselves as a people and know how far we have come in living on this dynamic planet?

To embrace the future…why not start with the past!



“Majesty of nature”, my climb up La Soufrière

Sunday 17th April 2016

All the way I wanted to try and frame myself like past adventurers who had climbed the volcano, so this entry is trying to capture the common themes in what has been written in the past.

Friday was an exciting day. I got to climb La Soufrière. Having a physical disability, it obviously made things difficult, but it has never stopped me doing what I wanted to do, and I think it makes reaching the top all the more rewarding for me. Especially the 12 hour sleep I had when I returned!

Sharp B. (1890) An account of the Vincentian volcano. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Vol. 42. Pg. 289-295.
The expedition party consisted of secondary school students of two schools, one from Georgetown and the other Sandy Bay, officers from the Forestry department, members from NEMO, scientists from the Seismic Research Centre of the University of the West Indies, researchers from the STREVA project and also a number of locals from Kingstown and Park Hill.


The Montane rainforest looks like the volcano never erupted 37 years ago. Vegetation regrowth is rapid, the above description by Mr Benjamin Sharp, 78 years later, and the photos Dr Tempest Anderson took just after the May 1902 eruption and 5 years later, demonstrate that. Even after the 1979 eruption the same phenomenon occurs. It is very impressive, to see the volcano destroy life but then promote such healthy regrowth.


Hovey E.H. donated to Anderson T. (1902) Area of secondary eruption, Bunker Hill. Used with kind permission from the Yorkshire Museum.
Anderson T. (1907) Rozeau Grass, Richmond Works. Used with kind permission from the Yorkshire Museum.
Can the same be said for the society? Well, time will tell from my studies and from others researching La Soufrière.

The path is a mixture of flat, leaf litter-covered paths, steady climbs, and muddy steep steps. After about half an hour or so, the first stop is “River Bed”, which is an area of prehistoric lava flows. There are big boulders, as well as small stones.

After the River Bed is a large number of steep steps that were certainly not made for my disability and little legs. I took my time though, saw some hummingbirds wiz around, so that was nice. After about another hour or more of steady climbing, the forest changes from tall, dense trees with an intense humidity, to shrub with plant and fruit species only found on La Soufrière. You can catch a nice refreshing breeze now too. An important thing however, is that with the absence of cloud, you can clearly see Georgetown, the principle town in the north Windward region. It looks small, and you can really feel the volcano dwarfing it.


The next and final stop before the summit is “Jacob’s Well”, another area of ancient lava and once upon a time, a place you could get fresh water, hence the name. This area is narrower than River Bed.


The last half an hour or so to the top was tough on me. It was mostly a steady slope, but luckily it was manageable. The nearer you get, the more loose rocks and ash you walk upon. Almost lost my footing a few times. I was one of the last to reach the top, people congratulated me to reaching it in one piece. Before I could catch my breath, someone said the crater is clear. I do not know where the energy came from, but I excitedly reached the edge.

And there is where I lost my breath.


I came across a diary of Special Magistrate John Anderson, who took the Leeward route to the summit in 1837. His feelings were, “Surprise, wonder and terror, strike the spectator at this majestic spectacle.” He also said the volcano was just as magnificent as The Vale of Chamouni in Switzerland, the first view of Geneva and the Alps, the Isle of Staffa, St Peter’s Church in Rome, the view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill, the Bay of Dublin and Menai Bridge in North Wales.

I don’t have such places to compare it to, but I agree with him. The sight is so majestic and such a thing of beauty. What you see, and looking down seeing the surrounding rich flora and fauna and Georgetown, does help to put the research in perspective though. This volcano is an agent of awesome and fearsome power, one third of the island can look up on a clear day and see it. They live around it. Villages, farms and everything else has been built on its volcanic deposits. Such things must be parallel with anyone who lives around or near an active volcano I am sure. The volcano is there, biding its time, while people just go about their business, with or without a second thought that there is something that can take everything away in a matter of days, hours, minutes or seconds.

On the way down, I unfortunately fell over three times. Got a bruise. But hey, no pain no gain right?

The secondary school students certainly had the energy and momentum I can only dream of having. But this volcano is more important to them than me. They need to see the volcano they live with up close, and no better way to learn about it than from the volcanologists and researchers who came along with them.

I’m still recovering from the trip but I can honestly say, every single muscle and joint that is hurting right now is 100 percent worth it.

“Altogether, this unparalleled scene must delight anyone alive to the Majesty of Nature. The Souffriere is a “Lion” which does not on inspection, belie its fame. I call to mind but few, which I have seen, that merit the same commendation. They are widely different in their characters, and the associations which they call up: – The Vale of Chamouni in Switzerland; – the first view of Geneva and the Alps, from the Jura Mountains, – the Isle of Staffa in the Hebrides; – Saint Peter’s Church at Rome, – Edinburgh form the Calton hill; the Bay of Dublin, – Menai Bridge; – and the Souffriere of St. Vincent, – will not suffer by familiar acquaintance. I cannot better describe the emotions excited by the first glance of this volcano, than by the recital of the following circumstance. A gentleman of my acquaintance ascended the mountain about 14 days after the last eruption. The soil was still warm, and every step told a fearful tale of horror. He was accompanied by a young Mulatto, who no sooner was brought to the brink of the abyss, than uttering a shriek, he dashed down the pathway, and terror smit, – never ceased his progress till he reached the strand at Wallibau, when he dashed into the waves, and swam to the vessel in which his Master had come down!”

Special Magistrate John Anderson, October 1837. In: McDonald R.A. (2001) Between slavery and freedom: special magistrate John Anderson’s journal of St Vincent during the apprenticeship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.