Because of the whole faff of the Oscars (honestly, why it was headline news I’ll never know), some may have missed something awesome: Mt Etna in Sicily started producing Strombolian activity at a new scoria cone at the Southeast crater last night.
Here is a link to a very stable live video feed of the ongoing eruption, the featured photo is a screenshot of tonight’s activity. Enjoy!
I was in the USA for 2 weeks September-October on a hunt for more archival sources related to the historic eruptions of La Soufrière. I had never been to America before so I got distracted by all the ‘bigness’ of pretty much everything compared to where I grew up and lived in the UK.
I had two aims:
Obtain copies of the diaries of the American Barrister Hugh Keane from the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, VA and;
Obtain field notebook copies of the American Geologist Dr Edmund Hovey from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
I have to say, I was very impressed with what I found.
My first stop was the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I was well aware of the rich history the city and the state itself so I was expecting great things.
Hugh Keane was a barrister in St Vincent in the early 1800s, but his family had been on the island since the late 1700s. His diary entries were in most part short (and small) but he does write on the 30th April about the beginings of the 1812 eruption.
Although this is what I came for I did run into a few issues. One is the handwriting, in which I need to take a paleography course at The National Archives in London for (online thankfully). Another was I actually took most of the pages at a wrong angle (oops) making it harder to transcribe. Another is the language and abbreivations he uses. And a big one is that he doesn’t give a day-to-day running commentary on the eruption. Either Hugh was too busy to watch it (he was a barrister during the slavery era) or he got bored of it. Hopefully his entries will provide helpful insights in what the volcanic processes and hazards were, if not to gain an idea what the responses were.
In any case, I got what I went for so I was happy with that. For Edmund Hovey’s collection I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that he was ordered by the American Museum of Natural History to investigate the eruptions of Pelée and Soufrière.
Dr Edmund Hovey was a geologist and at the time, assistant curator in the palaeontology section of the museum.
Once I got to the room where the collection was held (after getting briefly lost in the museum naturally), the curator assisting my search showed me the list of what they had. It looked exciting. A small cool collection was artifacts that Edmund brought back from Martinique:
I got more excited when I opened up the field notebooks:
Anyone who has done a geoscience based degree or course, knows how important a field notebook is. I was quite impressed with the level of detail Edmund went into, like a true geologist: time, date, location, and detailed descriptions of the geology and any hazardous phenomena. If this was part of an assignment today he would get high marks on descriptions but not so much on sketches. At the beginning of each notebook he would also note down the adminstrative hierarchy (Governor, adminstrator, executive council etc.) and if he was accompanied by anyone. The most surprising find for me (and the most critical) was that he interviewed and gathered statements of those who observed volcanic activity. Reading these statements, another very important aspect became apparent, he was including more voices than the ‘white elite’ men. He spoke to black men and women whose voice I had so far not been able to read (granted he called them negroes and negresses but I guess that was the language at the time).
My most favourite statement, that I will share with you all, was from a surviour of a pyroclastic density current that flowed down the eastern flank of the volcano over the Orange Hill Estate House. People survived in a rum cellar, whilst a number died in the corridor leading to the cellar and the estate manager, his wife and nephew died on the verandah.
Statement of Taylor in one of Edmund’s field notebooks (AMNH: Box 3, Item 31)
Photograph of the Orange Hill Estate house (YM: TA123)
Cellar where survivors were found (YM: TA125)
“A cook told me that trash in front of cellar and some of the houses were set on fire by the hot stones. Taylor(who is a very intelligent black man) and the others said that the “cloud rolled down from the Soufriere along the ravines, struck the sea, burst into flames foof, foof, foof, and at once turned back toward the sugar factory striking the building with great force and forcing shut the heavy doors and the heavy wooden shutters of the window openings. Heat was very oppressive. Air suffocating. Smelled of sulphur (rotten eggs, one said). For four or five minutes it seemed as if everyone would die from suffocation and cries for water were heard on all sides. Then the air cleared a bit, though the rain of dust and stones continued”.
From all information gathered from my trip, I can understand the volcanic hazards better: what, where, when and their impacts. They will also help inform impacts on the agricultural and society, where possible.
I like to thank the Royal Geographical Society for funding.
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!
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.
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.
Cannot believe a month has gone by already! I would say it has gone very well so far.
I have adjusted to the weather, got 7 out of 8 guard dogs to not bark at me every time I leave and return to the house, I am just about coping with mosquitoes and sand flies biting me and I have not been homesick yet.
The work is going well. With help from the archivist, I have obtained copies of documents related to the 1812, 1902 and 1979 eruptions. Things that, along with items from the Yorkshire Museum, British Library and The National Archives, will help piece my project together. There have been items here which completes a paper trail that began in London. In those moments, I definitely said to myself, “Oh, so that is what happened!”
One example was within the Windward Island governor dispatches for 1903, held by The National Archives, where there was a proposal brought forward by an estate owner, Mr Alexander Porter, to repair a canal in the ‘Carib country’ (lands in the north of the island), as a result of damage caused by the 1902 eruption. Over here in St Vincent, I found that in 1907-1908, the proposal was approved and the method of payment and employment to reconstruct the canal was discussed.
TNA: CO 321/220
The missing link.
I am relatively new to using archives for research but I do have to say, besides overcoming the ‘calming’ process (ironically is not calming at all), it is quite fun. I feel like I am on a treasure hunt!
Besides the archive, I have managed to talk to people about what they remember of the 1979 eruption. So far, all in their own way have been insightful and I believe what they have to say will benefit my project. One thing that had not occurred to me, but now will need to consider, is the movement of people during the eruptions. I have come across the general evacuation routes of people for 1812 and 1902, but with the interviews, I can demonstrate that it is not that straightforward. It depends on people’s social networks (a factor in resilience) and the household’s mobility.
For instance, I spoke to a man from Chateaubelair. He told me that he was inside and heard someone yelling, “Soufriere! Soufriere! Soufriere is acting up!” he then went outside to see what the fuss was about. When he saw the rising ash plume, 6 miles from the town, he, his wife, and his son, walked approximately 4 miles to an evacuation centre in Barrouallie, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. On the other hand, another man living in Chateaubelair, drove his family to a friend in Prospect, approximately 13 miles away from the volcano. He then returned to volunteer with the ambulance service in transporting sick people to Kingstown.
All in all, the stories that people have provided is helping me understand individual and household level responses and actions. I am finding it incredibly enjoyable and honored to hear these stories, I hope I can do more work like this beyond the PhD!
April will be a month to look forward to, I have more people to talk to, (hopefully) more archive items to view and I get to volunteer with the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) during the volcano awareness week, which is being organised with the Red Cross, the Seismic Research Centre of the University of the West Indies and, STREVA. Will be nice to see some familiar faces!