Mission to Montserrat
The tiny Caribbean Island buried almost 20 years ago by a still-smoldering volcano is now brimming with signs of life, a thriving a population of orioles brought back from the brink of extinction, and the looming threat of another blast.
Editor's Note: Sadly writer Chris Cox passed away in early June. Read a short tribute to Chris, with links to some of the other remarkable stories he wrote during his time with Audubon, at magblog.audubon.org.
Ernestine Cassell, Montserrat's tourism director, offers me a homemade guava jelly--a sticky-sweet treat that should be a signature snack for her tiny Caribbean homeland. But I'm in the modest offices of the Montserrat Tourist Board to learn more about the island's most infamous attraction, the Soufriere Hills. It is the unavoidable elephant in the room--a smoldering, spewing, 3,740-foot-tall (and swelling) volcano that looms over every aspect of life on this beleaguered 40-square-mile speck of a British overseas territory.
Since rumbling to life in mid-1995, the Soufriere Hills has buried the island's historic capital of Plymouth and almost all of its arable land under millions of cubic yards of ash and debris, crippled Montserrat's once robust tourist industry, driven nearly two-thirds of the population into overseas exile, and posed a dire threat to its national icon, the endemic Montserrat oriole. The 4,800 remaining islanders, such as Cassell and marketing manager Ishwar Persad, have slowly rebuilt their lives, as well as a new capital, in a scrubby section of the island they once considered "behind God's back."
"People don't realize Montserrat is still inhabited," says Persad, explaining the daunting marketing challenge confronting the tourist board. "They have this perception it's abandoned, and covered in ash."
The receptionist pops into the office and says, "Ah, take a look outside."
Persad leads the way to the front door. "Oh, my God," he says. "What the heck is going on?"
From my arrival 15 minutes earlier on a clear, sun-splashed Caribbean morning, the world has devolved into a swirling storm of choking ash that has blotted out the blue sky, dropped visibility to less than 100 feet, and cast the chaotic scene in sepia tones. Bureaucrats dash to their cars, and then roar down the serpentine roads. Is this how Montserrat ends, in a haze of ash and panic, without so much as an alarm from the island's volcano observatory?
Thankfully, the tempest is just the sound and fury of an unusual updraft from the east coast of Montserrat, which has picked up tons of ash from a massive, month-old pyroclastic flow--a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock--and borne the particles across the island to disrupt daily life.
Persad smiles wanly. "Welcome to Montserrat."
A few years ago fallout from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano shut down European air travel for nearly a week. Other craters and fumaroles continue to simmer and steam away, from Alaska and Oregon to Guatemala and the Andes of South America. But one of the Western Hemisphere's most lethal "hot spots" lies in an unlikely place: the sun-kissed eastern Caribbean, where an unbroken "ring of fire"--a chain of some 17 active volcanoes--arcs from the tiny Dutch territory of Saba nearly 500 miles south to Grenada.
This necklace of lush Lesser Antilles islands rides uneasily atop a volatile subduction zone, where the heavier Atlantic Plate slides west beneath the less-dense Caribbean Plate. As the plate sinks, water trapped in the hydrated minerals and ocean crust is released, partially melting the overlying mantle rock. Gases and this lighter-density magma then rise through the crust and gather in chambers beneath the volcanoes, building up enormous internal pressure. The magma of the eastern Caribbean is too thick to allow the trapped gases to vent; here, the outcome is usually a violent explosion, often with devastating human consequences.
Martinique's Mount Pelee was responsible for one of the world's most catastrophic natural disasters: a May 8, 1902, blowout with the force of 40 atomic bombs that sent a 100-mph nuee ardente--a glowing cloud of superheated gas, rock, and ash--surging down its southwestern slopes to immolate the colonial capital of St. Pierre. An estimated 30,000 people died in a matter of minutes; the lone survivor was a felon confined in a tomblike stone cell that insulated him from the blast. Only the eruptions of Indonesia's Tambora (1815) and Krakatoa (1883) have resulted in more documented casualties.
Nowhere in the Americas, however, are the landscape, lifestyle, and even the wildlife now more visibly affected by volcanic activity than on Montserrat, a mountainous island sighted by Columbus in 1493 and named for its resemblance to the rugged landscape of a famous Catalonian abbey. Radio-carbon dating indicates an explosive eruption occurred around 1600, perhaps a reason local Amerindians had avoided settling the island. Montserrat became an English colony in 1623, attracting Irish Catholics who had completed their time as indentured servants in nearby St. Kitts and sought to avoid further religious persecution. Even today, the "Emerald Isle of the Caribbean" retains a unique Gaelic quality, from the Irish harp on its flag to its most-popular dish, a spiced-mutton "goat water" stew, to celebrating St. Patrick's Day as a national holiday.