Living beside a dangerous volcano


An extraordinary experiment in human psychology has been going on in Montserrat since 1995. For centuries previously the various people who lived in this “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” went about their business oblivious to the idea that they were perched on and around a potentially killer volcano.  When eruptions resumed from the Soufrière Hills volcano (SHV), the residents were at first horrified, then terrified and then did the obvious thing and moved en masse to the nearest exit! Since then they have all undergone an amazing transformation in their group psychology. Those who remain, plus many newcomers, simply ignore and/or grumble about their noisy volcanic neighbour and carry on with their lives, seemingly almost unaware of their unique situation. OK, the residents around one Japanese and one Indonesian volcano (plus a handful of cases in Mexico and elsewhere) carry on as normal beside erupting explosive volcanoes. But all these others can simply move further from the volcano, if things get too dangerous locally. As everyone reading this knows well, Montserrat is totally different. The volcano has already stolen two thirds of the small island and periodically amuses itself by trying to steal some more.

This type of situation stirs vivid memories for people like me, who were children in England during World War 2. Of course the situation was indescribably worse throughout the rest of Europe. But in England we civilians quickly learned to live day-to-day with a noisy explosive neighbour that spent much of its time trying hard to kill us (and succeeding all too often). I suspect that Britains who experienced WW2 from beneath enemy bombs and rockets can understand better than most the strange way that Montserrat residents are coexisting so casually with their volcano (there will of course be countless millions of others with similar experiences in their past, but this is a website about a volcanic eruption and not modern world history).

Before removal of fuse

After removal of fuse

In this topic I plan to concentrate on a minor part of this “coexistence” theme; the situation as it affects small boys. My credentials are simple. I was born in southern England – between London and northern France – a few weeks after WW2 was formally declared. My father spent the entire war in Africa and my mother lived with her parents. During the next 5 years, I and my younger sister were sent away to the relative safety of northern Wales and the SW tip of Cornwall for two short periods but otherwise remained in the small town where I was born, under intermittent bombing and strafing (gunfire) from enemy planes. These also fought lethal battles with defenders above us.

One of my first baby memories was to wake in my cot and find that I could see the stars through a huge hole in the ceiling at the far end of the room. An enemy bomb had fallen onto a house about 200 m away, killing the occupants and blowing a large chimney into my bedroom. I remember thinking “How strange” and going to sleep again! By 1943 I could of course run quite fast (or so I thought!) and used to wait until the sirens sounded air raid warnings. Then, while adults ran to hide in our bomb shelter, I would try to escape outside into the street, because it was interesting to see such busy places empty. At around that time I hunted around our garden after a “dog fight” between two planes and was thrilled to find a brass cartridge case that was still hot.

When the enemy V1 rockets first appeared, they were quickly named “Flying bombs” or “Doodlebugs”. These had limited fuel and crashed and exploded when the fuel ran out. But, by the time I was four, I was exploring open land about 1 km from home when one appeared low and I watched delighted as our 5-year-old “leader” fired his new catapult at it! It crashed a few seconds later (doubtless killing people) but we were still thrilled to have shot it down ourselves and thus contributed to winning the war!

Technical masterpiece, the V1 rocket

Reality at target

Finally I clearly remember watching the awesome sight of the sky filled from horizon to horizon with “our” bombers on the way to raid the enemy. To us spectators, both young and old, they were a magnificent sight. To some impartial observers, they may well have seemed to be the beginning of yet another war crime (possibly Dresden?). So much in life is a matter of viewpoint.

Incidentally, I'm aware that wartime-related memories are almost ALL the ones before the age of six that remain in my mind, nearly 7 decades later. The only exceptions to this are two small matters that seemed traumatic to me as a toddler, but were doubtless hilarious to adults, plus images without action of a two young friends gardens and a neighbouring blacksmith's workshop, with forge at full blast.

Spectacular aerial armada

Reality, high above target

Reality at target, Hiroshima

Once your life has begun in such situations, you keep attitudes you learned in childhood throughout the remainder of your life. Thus, my chosen sport in my late teens was mountaineering (in the days when almost all modern safety measures were unheard of).  Again, in 1969 I had no safety concerns when using a metal rod to sample liquid basalt lava from a flow on Mt Etna, Sicily. The strombolian eruptive vent, surrounded by ejected lava blocks, was about 1 km away and erupting every few minutes. When an incandescent block about 2 metres in size fell only about 200 metres away, I remember thinking, “Does a smaller block fly further or less far from the vent?” and wishing that my maths were better! Then I carried on sampling the lava.


Learning to climb on a small sandstone cliff  about 60  km south-east of London. (1958; photographer unknown) Millstone Grit cliff near Sheffield

(1958; photographer unknown)

Snowdonia, North Wales

(1958; photographer unknown)


Biancograt, Piz Bernina, 1961 Biancograt, Piz Bernina, 1961; long before mountaineers used helmets for safety!

(Bob Thompson)

Yours truly sampling the molten lava. Don't try this at home!

(Pat Lovenbury)



Close-up to the 11 February 2010 pyroclastic flow and surge deposits

The relevance of all the above reminiscences to Montserrat in 2010 is that it explains why I felt no inhibition at all in mid-late February, when ignoring the exclusion zone maintained to protect public safety and investigating part of the margin of the Trants PF deposits and their associated fallout and pyroclastic surge deposits. When I first reached the island, 11 days after the huge eruption, I “behaved myself” and viewed both the partially collapsed dome and the PF and surge deposits covering the Trants/Spanish Point area from the safe public viewpoint of Jack Boy Hill.  There were more than ample amazing things for a visitor, or even a volcanologist, to see from that safe viewpoint. Some of my photos from there appear in other topics on this website.

Trants and Spanish Point area from space, October 2009 (NASA). North is approximately bottom right. At this time it was OK for farmers to continue beyond the section at Trants, where the 1997 PFs cut the pre-eruption coastal road, and reach the isolated Farms River valley where cultivation continued. The Jack Boy Hill observation point is beside the first bend in the short spur road running inland from the coast road at bottom right. The obvious site uphill from there is the island’s only rubbish tip (environmentally-friendly waste disposal facility?).




The ruined remains of Harris village can just be seen at middle top. Note that the ridge to the NW of Harris was richly vegetated in late 2009; compare with the next image from March 2010.


Same area after the 11 February 2010 partial dome collapse (NASA, false colour image; vegetation red and new deposits mostly pale grey). New PFs clearly cut the coastal road at the foot of the slope down from Jack Boy Hill. This is where I studied the PF margin etc 16 days after the eruption.



This NASA image appears later in this topic and gets further description there.




From Jack Boy Hill the dome now (Day 11  after the collapse) looks like a chocolate with a large bite removed. All this collapsed in less than two hours! Although it is mostly hidden by steam, you can just make out part of the northern  rim of the huge adjacent crater above the collapse scar. This was created by explosions towards the end of the collapse. Finally note that such clear weather conditions show how the east side of the dome, above Tar River Valley, has solidified from a totally unstable "slag heap" in 2007 (see photo on Home page) to a very solid-looking rocky rampart that supports the rest of the dome.

The  pale brownish tint of the rising fumes show that much of this material is volcanic ash. During the previous week you could often see ash explosions rising from here.

The preliminary MVO estimate for the volume of the collapsed dome material is about 40-50 million cubic metres.

The MVO photos at FLICKR include superb shots of the new crater etc.



Being me, I returned twice; on days 14 and 16 after the eruption. My first brief re-visit went to the top of the slope leading down from Jack Boy Hill to Trants. From the closed exclusion-zone gate across the road I could photograph the margin of the PF deposits at the bottom of the hill. I could also see clearly that: (1) the grass below looked brown but the leaves of shrubs were dusty and unsinged until near the PF margin; (2) nevertheless there was clear geological evidence that a strong blast of wind had been blowing approximately south to north (i.e. away from the collapsing dome) when the cm or two of fine ash was deposited there; (3) the fine ash was criss-crossed by the tracks of goats, chickens and iguanas, and a donkey had also left obvious evidence of its visit!; (4) there were also both dust-filled and new human footprints leading downhill below the barrier.


Dust-filled and fresh human footprints, plus probably also vehicle tracks, immediately below the closed exclusion gate across the Trants road on Day 14

Clear directional sedimentary structures in thin ash deposited from air moving right to left (i.e. south to north, away from the volcano). Same locality.

Equally clear evidence that the rock fragments on the road pre-dated the fine 11 February ash. Same locality.


Pieces of ash up to about 5 cm lay scattered in parts of the fine ash cover but elsewhere there were none, leading to the conclusion that NO ash fragments bigger than dust had reached my new viewpoint. This last observation was/remains a fascinating fact because there were good scientific grounds, based on the dome collapses of 2003 and 2006 into the nearby Tar River Valley, to expect that that when huge PFs hit the sea they can generate spectacular explosions as they mix with water (hydrovolcanism; see Topic 6). On Iceland in 2010 such explosions involved water from melted ice and produced the fine ash that closed European airspace for a while. On Montserrat in 2003 and 2006 they threw metre-sized boulders up to several km sideways. It was therefore reassuring NOT to see these at Trants.


Telephoto of the PF margin at Trants, showing unscorched leaves on shrubs about 50 metres from the PF and the small distinctive PF lobe, comprising a “levee” of rounded pumice blocks surrounding an ash-rich core (centre left, half hidden behind shed). Note flattened and charred trees lying on the PF. The pile of lava fragments  beside the wrecked truck is quarried material (Trants has been quarried since the 1997 PFs cooled).

Brown grass (possible a result of the severe drought?) and dusty green leaves on shrubs and trees until almost beside the PFs. The distant pipe-like structure protruding from the PF at centre top is a part-buried old sugar mill chimney (see below).

Telephoto of an unconcerned cockerel foraging near the bottom of the hill below the exclusion gate.


When I reviewed the day’s photos at home, I noticed that one telephoto shot showed clearly that some of the margins of the PF lobes at Trants included the distinctive structure of pumice blocks surrounding a fine ash core that I had only previously seen in books etc (see Topic 2, Fig. 16). I therefore decided, two days later, to follow the animal tracks across the thin ash down the hill and try to get some close-up photos of this classic volcanological phenomenon. By that day it was obvious some rain had already fallen on the upper part of the slope but there was no sign of significant amounts having fallen nearer the bottom. This is typical of the extremely patchy rainfall distribution over a mountainous tropical island like Montserrat – especially during a severe drought.


The 11 February 2010 PF margin at Trants. The new PFs cut the road about 50-100 metres below the quarry shed and old wrecked truck. The farm buildings about 200 metres from the PF margin contain pigs (see below), explaining the human tracks through the ash on the road. The lack of huge lava blocks within this part of the PF is distinctive because most of this massive deposit, uphill from the coast, is dotted with them.

Trants before Feb 2010, but after 1997 (Ivan Browne). The wrecked truck is a long-term feature! The part-covered runway of the old airport is visible upper right.

By Day 16 local rain has begun to wash away 11 February ash on the Trants road immediately below the exclusion barrier.



Raindrop “pitting” in ~2 cm fine ash beside the Trants exclusion barrier. Common objects like ballpoint pens make useful improvised scale bars. The apparent bending of the pen (and horizons in other images) also shows the considerable distortion caused by the lens of my camera. But one that avoids  this problem costs a fortune!

Distinctive iguana track in the ash.

Montserrat iguana. The adults average about 1 metre in total length. They clearly like to gently roast themselves in warm places and have become very abundant since they ceased to be an essential diet item!

(Steph Flude)



Vehicle tracks lead to the farm entrance. Presumably the farmers have a key to the locked exclusion barrier above their property.

Farmers attending to their livestock, about 100 metres from the margin of the thick ash and burned shrubs marking the 11 February surge here. How could anyone forecast in advance, to within 100 metres, where this pyroclastic surge might strike? This is what living in a state of prolonged “war” with an erupting explosive volcano is all about.

The pigs came within about 100 metres of a violent death. The farmers were fortunately working elsewhere at the time the dome collapse occurred without any immediate warning.


On the walk down the slope the abundant animal and other tracks in the thin ash could be used to “read” what had happened during the last 16 days. The photos of the pig farm and farmers near the bottom of the hill say volumes about the reality of “Living with our volcano” (as Governor Waterworth has put it in the past) on Montserrat! At the margin of the PF I took the volcanological photos I wanted for this website (see Topic 2) and also searched for evidence as to how this PF/surge event had interacted with animals, both on 11 February and subsequently. I found a dead goat -- still hardly decomposed -- in a drainage culvert beside the road, about 30-50 metres from the PF boundary (very indistinct at this locality). The goat does not appear to have reacted to inhaling scorching air and its lack of fur singeing suggests that death was probably caused by asphyxia, hypoxia or both (see Topic 5). It probably fell into the culvert while trying to escape uphill from the surge clouds. Then a couple of breaths of ash-laden air would have killed it very fast. Doubtless innumerable animals died beneath the PFs and in the surrounding hot surges.


The ash was still thin and arrived cool (no leaf singeing) less than 100 metres from the PF margin. The scale is given by fresh goat tracks and the ~40 cm walking pole. Note the culvert at top right where the body of the dead goat lay.

The ash is gritty and has surface features that show the direction of the air current (relatively cool surge) from which it was deposited. Chicken, goat and human footprints for scale.



Roadside culvert, 30-50 metres from the PF margin, containing a dead goat (and a live cockerel doubtless on the hunt for animal protein). Note unsinged leaves in foreground but widespread surge-related scorching of vegetation on the more distant hillsides. Fallen and charred trees mark wherever the PFs flowed.

Dead goat in a roadside drainage culvert; an astonishingly fresh corpse after 16 days in the tropics. By the way, if such unguarded culverts everywhere scare you as a potential visitor, don’t drive on Montserrat!


Although the smouldering wood protruding from within the PF made it blatantly obvious that the interior was still dangerously hot for humans and other animals on Day 16, the surrounding surge ash was all cool by then. Nevertheless, it was clearly hot enough inside the surge zone (up to 50-100 metres from the PF during emplacement) to char wood and strip leaves. A goat is in much the same situation as a human at a PF margin because a human will sink into the PF and receive severe leg burns, if he/she steps onto the flow, whereas a goat is much less heavy but also has much smaller feet, giving its owner similar problems with soft ground. Chickens are better designed than goats to walk across very soft ground and iguanas are superbly adapted to do such things. The animal tracks at the margin of the PF showed this hierarchy perfectly. Goats kept strictly to the firm ground beside the PF margin. But their tracks tell us that iguanas had no trouble in wandering all over the PF a few days after its emplacement. Chickens tried to emulate this “fire walking” but without much success (typical of a chicken’s “taste it and see” attitude to life, in my experience!).


Where the PFs cut the road, their exact margins are almost impossible to locate. I think that the PF begins where fragments of charred wood appear and that the ash in front is surge-derived. Note the wood still smouldering on Day 16 within the PF. Therefore a temperature of at least 250oC beneath the PF surface – amply hot enough to cause horrendous burns to flesh. A telephoto close-up shows the smouldering wood more clearly.

Also you can now see how close the 200-year-old sugar mill chimney came to obliteration by house-sized boulders in the PF that stopped only a few tens of metres before reaching it.

A similar old sugar mill on Antigua.

The 18th Century masons would be proud!



At this point the goat tracks tell all! Goats are clearly no keener on burning their feet than humans and so they make a trail precisely along the edge of the hot PF deposits, as marked by pumice fragments and pieces of charred wood.

Accentuated contrast shows this situation best and also shows that chicken tracks follow the goats (chicken feet have feelings too!). The boundary between fragments of charred and uncharred wood is another accurate indicator of the PF margin. Geologists will also notice that the break in slope and distribution of pale pumice blocks also mark the PF boundary but this may not be so clear to non-scientists, let alone children.



Iguana track crossing PF surface (centre) and one set of chicken tracks running out on to the flow (left) for several metres, and then terminating for unknown reasons. Accentuated contrast.

Iguana tracks on the PF margin, showing that these reptiles had clearly explored the PF surface extensively by Day 16. Note abundant pumice blocks, charred wood fragments and battered oil drum (gives another scale reference).


Finally I walked from the surge margin uphill about 100 metres north of the road, in order to study the marginal surge zone more closely. Most of my observations there were strictly volcanological and have no place on this website (please email me if you wish to know more about the accretionary lapilli etc). The surge ash close to the PF margin was only a few cm thick but had been deposited hot enough to burn the leaves off small bushes and char their stems. The ash fragments ranged in size from dust to sand or very fine gravel (fragments up to about 2-3 mm).


Surge deposits up to ~50m from PF margin. Air direction during the PF/surge event N-S, as elsewhere. Bushes are leafless and their stems lightly charred. In the middle distance sea water is clearly beginning to reach into the hot PF margins.

Human and chicken tracks on surge-related ash within 50 metres of the Trants PF margin. Actually, judging from published reports, this ash is quite thick for a deposit from a surge.


These observations lead to three thoughts:

1.    These ash deposits from a marginal surge are exactly the same as the ones that severely burned the bare feet of survivors running to escape from the lethal surge that hit Streatham on 25 June 1997, as described in the science report by Sue Loughlin and her colleagues in 2002, and also mentioned in the testimony of a survivor on the DVD “The Price of Paradise”.

2.    In Topic 7 I summarise research reports about how these thin and harmless-looking surge-deposited ash coverings on hillsides can sometimes reach such combinations of thickness and angle of the underlying slope that they begin to slide sideways and feed a new PF. This happened on a large scale during the 11 February 2010 partial dome collapse (see caption to NASA image).

3.    It would only take one heavy rainfall to destroy most of the extremely delicate details shown in several of these photos. If the 11 February event had happened during a wet period, very little of the matters in this topic would have remained by the time I reached Trants.

Uphill from the relatively thick surge ash, I reached an MVO instrument station that appeared to be undamaged. This was just a fluke; the shrubs beside the station showed singeing downhill and none uphill. This photo illustrates the importance of something also emphasised by survivors of the 25 June 1997. If you are faced by an approaching surge cloud, just turn and keep running (uphill if possible). The boundary between lethally hot and non-lethal air is so narrow that a single extra step or two may save your life.


MVO instrument site on “hot/cooler” surge boundary. Shrub leaves burned to the right and unburned to the left.


The inevitable final question is, "Why was the small part of the 11 February PFs I visited so relatively lacking in associated surge deposits?". The caption to the NASA image below attempts to explain this.


The same NASA false colour image of the Trants-Spanish point area as appeared earlier in this Topic. Orientation roughly SOUTH at the top. The bright white area at centre top is the SE-facing slope of the ridge above the ruins of Harris village. This took the main blast of the western part of the dame collapse and was swept by ferocious surges (see Topic 2 and the FLICKR stream on the MVO website). Notice that parts of the sheltered NW slope of this ridge escaped the surge and retain their vegetation unharmed (green=red!). But at two places the surges crossed the ridge immediately NW of Harris and entered the valley beyond (Farm River). If you look carefully, you can see clearly that the invading surge ash deposits were thick enough to begin to slide downhill and generate another “secondary surge-fed pyroclastic sand flow” just like those first seen in 1997 (Topic 7) and several times since.


This space image also shows how the two further ridges protruding between Harris and Trants also shielded the area I studied on Day 16. Both ridges suffered extensive vegetation charring, unlike the near-sea place where I took my photos (bottom right).



The following photos show some of the 2010 devastation in and around Harris.


From a helicopter at about 6000 feet, you can compare the overview with the NASA space false -colour image. This, and all but one of the next 11 photos, are from the Facebook albums of Greg Scott of Caribbean Helicopters, Antigua.

The concept that the PF is full of pumice is made convincing by seeing rafts of it floating just offshore during the days following the eruption.

By the time the PFs reached the sea, they were accompanied by only sparse surge deposits because the clouds of hot dusty pyroclastic surge associated  with them had dropped most of their suspended load of solids and risen into the sky.

This photo by Bob Thompson on Day 16 after the eruption.


The site where Harris village used to be is just left of centre. The 11 February PFs have razed most of the ruins there to the ground. The accompanying surges have charged up the side of the ridge behind the village, swept over the top and spilled into the next valley (Farms River).

Vegetation charred at the top of the ridge behind Harris. The surges here were extremely hot.

This is the sort of ash density that Greg Scott has to fly his helicopter through on Montserrat PFs etc. North Europeans can compare this reality with the mayhem that a trivial Icelandic ash cloud has caused in early 2010!


The upper parts of this reinforced concrete house have been swept away.

This extreme destruction is patchy, suggesting that it is not so much the fine-grained majority of the PF that does the damage, as the huge boulders carried by it.

Greg notes that the steel reinforcement rods within this concrete are about 2.5 cm in diameter.


At this point it becomes clear that the huge boulders entrained in the PFs acted as giant carpentry planes and simply swept away anything they encountered.

A minor parking problem. Where else can a PF dump one of its boulders, apart from the nearest roof?!

A bonus image from Greg Scott's extraordinary photo sets. High on the NE slopes of the volcano, at Hermitage, you can see perfectly how the PFs tend to keep to the valleys, while their associated surges invade and sear the adjoining higher ground.


Do some Montserratians now see the eruptions of SHV as a spectacle?

 The evidence that some of them do so is available on YouTube. Throughout the long eruption video clips of big explosions have regularly appeared and some of these have included soundtracks where the film-maker has made enthusiastic noises about the amazing and spectacular sight in his/her viewfinder. The best I can find at the time of writing is this clip of the 8 January 2010 vulcanian eruption. The local commentator was not of course aware at the time that a PF generated during the collapse of this blast would, a few minutes afterwards, reach further than ever before down the Belham River and finally stop opposite the AIR Studios, only about 1 km from occupied houses.

Then much the same thing happened again on 11 February 2010 and Melody Schroer was standing in just the right place (Bishops View Road, Old Towne) to get some more memorable shots as that PF came down the valley.


Photos from a set on Facebook by Melody Schroer of the  11 February 2010 partial dome collapse, seen from Old Towne

The associated PF approaching the corner in the Belham River Valley (bottom right) that is only about 1 km from occupied houses in Frith.


he use of such language as in the video clip to describe a potentially deadly phenomenon only a few km distant is exactly like the emotional reaction I described above from my memories as a young boy watching massive groups of bombers flying overhead late in WW2. This tells me the patently obvious fact that all Montserratians are now so accustomed to their erupting volcano that their state of mind is similar to that of the English population during WW2. Thus both enemy bombing and volcanic eruptions rapidly become just a fact of local life. This progression in the minds of Montserrat residents, and also visiting tourists, in 1995-6 is superbly documented in Lally Brown's 2010 account of life on the island during 1995-7. "Birth of a Mountain" is still available in small numbers at the time of writing in mid-2010 (


Educating young people to understand and hence avoid dangers from the volcano.

Throughout the SHV eruption the role of education for both adults and children has been seen as explaining the nature and potential effects of various volcano-related dangers, emphasising the importance of obeying NDPRAC and police orders to the letter, and keeping well away from dangerous places. In Topic 9 I summarised Kat Haynes’ research on risk communication in Montserrat during the earlier years of the eruption. This fascinating sociological study showed that most adult residents obeyed official instructions, with varying degrees of reluctance. Nevertheless there are blogs to be found on the internet from visiting adults who delighted in ignoring the restrictions and exploring the exclusion zone. Adult residents have told me similar tales of their curiosity overcoming their sense of danger. But what about the Montserrat children – both girls and boys but especially the more rebellious boys? All children are extremely cautious about what they tell adults about their worlds. Any adult who is privileged to have access to a teenager’s FaceBook page will know exactly what I mean!

Remember that children in places like Montserrat, free as yet from the parental semi-imprisonment that neurotic modern adults impose on their young in some countries, behave like Huckleberry Finn and go off and explore their surroundings on their own terms. Now attach to that thought the fact that all under-15s on the island have co-existed with SHV and its explosive tantrums throughout their lives, unless they are newcomers of course. At this point you can see the relevance of my childhood WW2 reminiscences. The children on Montserrat today are typical “war babies” and some of them – the rebellious ones – will surely be silently ignoring official restrictions on their freedom and exploring the volcano and its deposits for themselves. Can education do anything at all to help prevent them damaging themselves when some inevitably reach places like the margins of recently emplaced PFs?

How do parents and professional school teachers worldwide tackle such subjects as swimming, harmful drugs and underage sex? Notice I’ve juxtaposed two “bad things” with an apparently harmless activity. But a child who tries an illegal drug or has sex does not immediately die horribly, like a child who cannot swim and falls into deep water or steps onto a lethally hot PF margin alone and breaks through its cooled outer layer. Parents who live near the sea instinctively protect their children from this deadly hazard by exposing them to beaches as soon as they can crawl, let alone walk, and teaching them to swim as early as possible. Then the children can begin to explore the world of swimming and snorkelling for themselves. Even if some parents pretend to their children that both harmful illegal drugs and underage sex do not exist, it is agreed worldwide by experienced teachers etc that the best way to protect children from such “evils” is to educate them, so that they at least do not stumble into danger through total ignorance.

Until late in 2009 the main barrier between SHV pyroclastic flows and curious exploring children was distance. Although PFs down Tyers Ghaut were becoming increasingly frequent, none of them made much progress towards the lower Belham Valley. The only early exception was the “secondary surge-fed” sand-like PF on 25 June 1997 that reached to below the school at Cork Hill. One adventurous child there failed to resist going into the ravine below and exploring the strange new arrival. He/she was burned for his/her troubles and thus unwittingly illustrated my point about the need to educate such people as to what they may find if they fail to resist encountering a hot PF. The new factor in 2010 is that large PFs have now begun regularly to reach the lower Belham Valley, comparatively close to residents in Salem, Frith, Old Towne etc. On 10 December 2009 a PF reached to below Cork Hill, as in 1997. At that time the PF was small and the vegetation along the valley at Cork Hill remained fresh and green. By mid-February 2010 this vegetation was singed by surges accompanying subsequent much larger PFs; all the searing clearly visible from Garibaldi Hill.


The 10 December 2009 PF reached to below Cork Hill. The main PF stopped at the right of this photo but a thin PF tongue continued down the valley for several hundred metres. From the air the latter looks suspiciously like a secondary surge-fed PF (see Topic 7).

Copyright MVO, reproduced with thanks.

By mid-February 2010 the Belham Valley below Cork Hill has been partially filled by new PF deposits, mostly after the 11 February partial dome collapse. Despite the very dusty conditions, caused by ash remobilised by wind, is is possible to see that the vegetation along the valley has been singed when the PF and accompanying surge were emplaced.


On 8 January 2010 a PF fed by a big vulcanian explosion came as close as about 1 km (straight line) from houses where local children live. Am I seriously meant to believe that Caribbean parenting is so severe that NONE of these children dared to sneak off secretly and take a close-up look at the hot deposits in the valley nearby? If they did so, was their safety enhanced or lessened by their ignorance of the things to recognise as indicators of what was safe there and what was dangerously hot beneath an innocent-looking cooled exterior?


The PF of 8 January 2010 moved down the Belham River Valley and here approaches the Air Studios (bottom right).


Copyright MVO; reproduced with thanks


If you've not yet seen an MVO thermal video of a PF, do so now!


It is absolutely none of my business to advise anyone on Montserrat how to educate their children but I am at liberty, as a parent of two adventurous girls (one with children) and career teacher, to say how I personally would handle the developing situation. If the eruption continues for years to come, the “frog in a saucepan” psychological phenomenon (Topic 10) will perhaps slowly lead to residents on the north bank of Lower Belham Valley to watch unconcerned as regular PFs rumble past below them. In 1997 this situation would have led to instant mass evacuation but “Living with our volcano” takes all the residents near Belham into different psychological territory. This is the modern world, where urban children routinely stand within metres of innumerable fast-moving vehicles on roads and less-fortunate ones rapidly learn to co-exist with war, as our TV screens show constantly. If I lived with my young family in Salem, I’d try to persuade both MVO staff and the island authorities to let me take them to the margins of newly-emplaced future PFs in the Belham Valley, so that I could show them the sorts of “fieldcraft” things I’ve outlined in this topic. Then I’d feel less worried if they and their friends failed to resist visiting a nearby hot PF on their own. In this venture I’d be doing no more than the Montserrat equivalent of teaching them to swim.


View from Bishops View Road, Old Towne, across the Belham Valley towards St George's Hill. The visible deposits in the valley are lahars.

Little Bay