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Montserrat Volcano Rumbles Again - 2001-07-31

In the Caribbean, beleaguered residents of Montserrat are once again battling a thick layer of debris, after the latest eruption of the island's active volcano. Sunday's eruption sent volcanic ash as far away as Puerto Rico, 300 kilometers away, and there is no telling how long the once-dormant volcano will remain active.

Since rumbling to life in 1995, the Soufriere Hills Volcano has transformed the tiny island of Montserrat, located southeast of Antigua along the Lesser Antilles island chain. Long-gone is the former capital, Plymouth, as the southern two-thirds of the island has been rendered uninhabitable. Those who have not abandoned Montserrat completely are limited to the northern tip of the pear-shaped island.

According to Peter Dunkley, Director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, thanks to a massive relocation effort, the volcano no longer poses a danger to residents when it erupts, as it did late Sunday. "Some of the residential areas got a substantial covering of ash, an inch or so [2-3 centimeters] in some places," he says. "And it was wet, so it is like wet, red mud over everything, and it is quite difficult to clean up. It's unpleasant but it is not life-threatening."

Nevertheless, winds carried thick ash clouds for hundreds of kilometers, forcing a 48-hour suspension of air travel in the region. In Miami, Hector Gonzalez' flight to Puerto Rico was canceled Monday. Although flights are resuming, carriers are overbooked. "We have been informed that we won't be able to fly [to Puerto Rico] until Saturday," he says.

Researcher Peter Dunkley notes that the Soufriere Hills Volcano is prone to regular activity. "There is a lava dome growing on the summit region of the volcano," he says. "It is like a large mound of lava. It is very viscous but very hot. And occasionally parts of it collapse off. You get small-scale collapses, piecemeal collapses that give rise to hot avalanches we call them pyroclastic flows."

But Sunday's activity was no small-scale flow, according to Mr. Dunkley. "Occasionally, larger sectors collapse," he says. "And that's what happened on Sunday. We had very wet weather here for 24 hours. We started to get mudflows in the principle rivers on the island, and then ash started to come down with the rain. And then we started to get a sustained collapse on the east side of the dome, with pyroclastic flows going down and out to sea."

From 1995 to 1998, Montserrat's population shrank from 11,000 to about 3,000. Now, according to Peter Dunkley, the population is beginning to rebound. "I've been told there are just under 6,000 people on the island at the moment," he says. "And they all live in the north. The volcano is in the south, and that is an exclusion zone. No one is allowed to enter there except for scientific staff and the police. The northern part of the island is where all the rehabilitation and reconstruction is going on and where the population lives."

Montserrat Volcano Observatory Director Peter Dunkley says, one day, the Soufriere Hills Volcano will return to dormancy. But whether the timeframe is a matter of a few years or far longer is anyone's guess for now.