Dhe eruption of the 1200 meter high La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent at the weekend did not come as a surprise. Since shortly after Christmas there had been repeated minor gas and water vapor eruptions on the volcano, which has been dormant since 1979. As a result, a more than 100 meter high lava dome grew in the crater. After the gas outbreaks had intensified in the past week, the civil protection agency sounded the alarm on Thursday and began evacuating the northern part of the island. Almost 16,000 of St. Vincent’s 110,000 residents were affected.
The first major eruption on Friday tore up the lava dome and hurled volcanic ash more than eight kilometers high into the atmosphere. The eruption continued over the weekend, and eventually a layer of grayish ash an inch thick covered the entire island. Experts reckon that the outbreak may last for several more weeks.
The Fire Mountain on St. Vincent is one of 19 active volcanoes in the tropical archipelago of the “Leeward Islands”, as most of the Lesser Antilles are also called. Under these islands, which extend in an arc of more than 850 kilometers, the North American tectonic plate slides under the Caribbean crustal plate coming from the east. That is why there are always earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in this tropical tourist paradise, also on the island of St. Vincent located in the southern part of the arch of the island.
At least five major eruptions of the La Soufrière volcano are known to have occurred in historical times. In the most catastrophic outbreak on May 6, 1902, 1,680 people were killed. Almost all villages that were inhabited by the indigenous population of the archipelago, the Caribs or Kalinagos, were also destroyed. Most of the native people died in the outbreak.
Just two days after this deadly eruption, another, much worse volcanic disaster occurred on the island of Martinique about 250 kilometers further north. After a massive eruption of the almost 1500 meter high Mont Pelée, huge avalanches of glowing hot ash streamed down the southern slopes of the volcano at great speed and completely buried Saint-Pierre, then the largest city in Martinique. Of the 29,000 inhabitants, only two allegedly survived, including the only inmate of the island’s fortress-like prison. Despite the short interval between the two eruptions, volcanologists have so far found no physical connection between the two most devastating eruptions in the Caribbean.
Because most of the residents of St Vincent followed the evacuation orders over the weekend, no one has been harmed in the recent eruption of La Soufrière. More than 3,600 residents were accommodated in emergency shelters. In addition, several cruise lines sent passenger ships to St. Vincent to take those affected to other Antilles islands.
Because of the heavy ash rain, agriculture on the island is expected to be seriously damaged. Banana cultivation is the largest occupation in the small state, followed by tourism, which was largely absent due to the pandemic last year.