The Only Active Caribbean Volcano Has Expelled Ash Up to 8 Km

A huge explosion is iminent

The paradise of the Caribbean Montserrat Island, in the Lesser Antilles was destroyed in 1997 when the Soufriere Hills Volcano's eruption destroyed Plymouth, the island's two centuries old capital.

The 1997 blasting buried most of the southern part of the island and killed 19 people.

Since then, the mountainous island has gone on a building frenzy: a new city center is planned for Little Bay, the future capital, in northwest part of the island and a new airport to replace the one that was covered by lava flows; a 700-seat concert hall, a new parliament, courthouse and cricket field.

The volcano started to be active in 1995 and since then, more than half of the 12,000 inhabitants of the island moved away.

A week ago, a shot of ash cloud more than five miles (8 km) tall has been expelled by the volcano.

One of the island's chief scientists said the blast was "a warning call.''

About 50 families on the northwestern side of the volcano's base were warned to leave their homes because of the risk from flows of blistering gas and debris if the dome explodes. "The blast, accompanied by increased seismic rumbling, released gases and steam from inside a lava dome that has grown rapidly over the last week," said Dr. Vicky Hards, director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

"I think it was a warning call ... of what it can do,'' Hards said.

"The explosion around sunrise also sent a flow of volcanic material cascading two miles down the northwest flank, but did not immediately threaten any of the British Caribbean island's 5,000 inhabitants."

Sirens calls warned people to be watchful to the radio for updates. "People in the affected area know who they are and should work urgently on packing up and arranging for alternative accommodations,'' said Gov. Deborah Barnes Jones in a radio address.

"Only "a handful'' of residents were believed to still be living in the threatened area," said Mark Twigg, head of the governor's office. "This causes genuine hardship for people who have to leave, and this is taken lightly by nobody,'' he said.

The latest burst of the volcano on December 24 threw up bright streaks of red from the pyroclastic flows, making nighttime shows visible across much of the island.

A bigger explosion is expected soon, as the volcano's rising dome stayed in place after the recent one.

Other active volcanoes in the Caribbean are found in Dominica (Mount Pelee: last blast in 1902) and Saba (Mount Scenery: last blast in 1640).

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