The Soufriere Hills volcano, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, began to erupt on July 18, 1995, resulting in the devastation of the island's then-capital of Plymouth. The volcano had erupted at least twice before, as shown through radiocarbon dating, but this was the first time an eruption from this volcano had been observed and recorded.
Geology and the Initial Eruption
The Soufriere Hills volcano is one of a chain of volcanoes extending through the Caribbean, including the Soufriere volcano on Guadeloupe--the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory notes that "soufriere" is the French word for "sulfur," so many of these volcanoes have similar names--Micotrin, Mont Pelee, La Soufriere and "Kick 'em Jenny."
Residents on Montserrat started reporting earthquake swarms in 1992, which strengthened in 1994. The first eruption, on July 18, 1995, led to minor ashfall and a sulfurous odor. Initially the eruption was considered minor; however, it was monitored closely because of historical eruptions in the area and the number of people living nearby. Mont Pelee's 1902 eruption killed 28,000 people; therefore, observers did not want to ignore the activity from Soufriere Hills.
Increase in Intensity
The eruption intensified on August 21, resulting in thick ashfall that covered Plymouth. The southern portion of the island was evacuated, although some residents did stay behind, only to face a continuous eruption. Plymouth was essentially destroyed beginning June 25, 1997, with pyroclastic flows into Plymouth and the surrounding area that killed at least 19 people. The terminal at W.H. Bramble airport and Radio Montserrat's AM transmitter were both destroyed as well.
The volcano's continual eruptions--while some breaks have been observed, the volcano was still erupting as of 2009--have destroyed not only buildings and land, but health as well. Residents on the northern side of the island face continued ashfall. This contains small particles of a type of quartz known to result in silicosis, in which the ash can accumulate in the lungs and lead to suffocation. The BBC noted in a Feb. 19, 1999, article that unfortunately, as residents clean up after each ashfall, much of the already fallen ash is kicked back up and once again becomes an inhalation hazard.
Over 7,000 people have been displaced from their homes. Some still reside on the northern portion of the island, while others went to the UK or the United States. Montserratians were initially offered temporary residency in the United States; however, because eruptions have continued for so long, their status is in question in 2009.
According to the BBC's territory profile for Montserrat, Plymouth has been abandoned. St. John's is a de facto capital while Little Bay is planned to be the next capital. Nearly two-thirds of the island appears to be part of an exclusion zone.
The destruction of the capital, airport and much of the land--and continued eruptions--have meant an end to the tourism business in Montserrat. Rebuilding efforts have been financed by international aid packages.