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Column: Volcanic eruptions wreak havoc on Caribbean island
Rudi Kiefer

“St. Vincent and the Grenadines” sure sounds like a happy family place where one can enjoy a relaxed vacation. A little over a week ago, major unhappiness came to this small Caribbean nation. With a land area of 133 square miles, the main island, St. Vincent is smaller than Cumberland Island on the Georgia coast. On the morning of April 9, its roughly 101,000 residents were alarmed by the start of a series of volcanic eruptions. La Soufrière is an active volcano, classified by geologists as the andesitic type. That marks it as a dangerous one, comparable to Mt. St.Helens in the U.S. state of Washington. La Soufrière isn’t as tall as Mt. St. Helens, measuring 400 feet less than Blood Mountain near Blairsville. But andesitic volcanoes, also known as stratovolcanoes, have some unpleasant characteristics compared to the ones tourists like to visit on Hawaii. A stratovolcano has a sandwich-like structure, consisting of many layers of volcanic lava and bedrock. The type of lava, molten rock rising from beneath its surface, is what makes it a killer. The lava is thick and won’t flow easily. When an eruption occurs, it doesn’t form a steady molten stream like the ones we saw in May 2018 on Hawaii Island, when homes in the Leilani Subdivision were overrun slowly by the hot liquid. Caribbean volcanoes get violent. Their lava erupts in sudden spurts, causing massive explosions from the crater. Lava and surrounding bedrock get blown up into tiny particles called volcanic ash. It descends on surrounding areas and looks a bit like a snow storm. However, volcanic ash isn’t good for a snowball party. It causes asphyxiation, irritates eyes and skin and makes car and aircraft engines quit instantly, ruined. Such an explosion came on April 10, prompting the evacuation of 16,000 people. 

Many andesitic eruptions come with additional frightening features. The most feared is the nuée ardente, or pyroclastic cloud. It’s a foam-like mass of lava, hot pebbles, boulders and volcanic ash that rolls down the hills at incredible speeds. It buries everything in its path. North of St. Vincent, past St. Lucia, is the island of Martinique. There, Mt. Pelée killed 30,000 people when its nuée ardente overran the city of St. Pierre in 1902. The tiny country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines deserves international assistance at this time of severe trouble.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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