Our Beautiful World

1902 - Mount Pelee
By Tom Bacon (Email: JohnDaybreak@aol.com)

The islands of the Caribbean such as Martinique, Antigua and Montserrat have a volcanic legacy. Every one of these islands is a result of volcanic activity rising from deep beneath the Earth’s crust,
where powerful tectonic processes form a reservoir of molten rock. And, sometimes, these reservoirs come to the surface in deadly eruptions.

Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique.
The island of Martinique is part of the volcanic island chain known as the Antilles arc. Here, the North and South American plates are both being forced under the denser Caribbean plate. As the plates are forced down - or ‘subducted’ to use the proper scientific term - they melt, and form buoyant magma. This magma rises to penetrate the Caribbean plate, forming a band of volcanic islands marking the subduction zone.

The volcano Mount Pelee was known to be active. The first indication that it was about to erupt was when a party of picnickers climbed the volcano and reported sulphurous vapours rising from several points near the summit of the mountain on the south side. This south side faced the town
of St Pierre, the thriving capital of Martinique; but the town stood 4 miles (7 km) from the summit, and the people of Martinique thought themselves safe. Indeed they even began to hold the latest election, and people actually moved towards the capital so as to vote. Their confidence was to be mistaken. 4 miles is nothing when faced with the awesome power of a volcano.

On the 25 April, the eruption proper began, with some small explosive activity. This began to
build up ominously, and volcanic ash began to sprinkle St Pierre. In spite of this, the local newspaper asked, “Where better is there to be than St Pierre?”
Then came 5 May. On the volcanic peak was a deep crater, in which water had collected. This water was gradually heated and, as magma rose, was ultimately displaced, sweeping down the valley of the River Blanche, mixing with volcanic ash, soil and boulders and forming a mudflow, known as a lahar. Thirty men died, and when the mudflow struck the sea 1 mile from St Pierre it knocked up a powerful wave, known as a tsunami, which caused a handful of deaths and
flooded some of the shore at the capital.
A report was commissioned, but there were no experts amongst them; the science of ‘volcanology’ did not yet exist. The report released was a standard ‘don’t panic’ statement, and yet many felt comforted. Some people wisely began to migrate to the second-largest city of Martinique, the Fort de France; their lives were to be spared.
On 8 May 1902 at 7:50 am, a series of deafening blasts was heard and an enormous black cloud rose from the volcano. This cloud travelled, not vertically, but laterally, down the volcano’s slopes and into St Pierre. Within a few minutes, everyone was dead, apart from one prisoner in the jail. He was in a cell below ground with only one small air vent; ironic that this should save his life,
even if he still endured terrible burns to his back.

This cloud was then an unknown volcanic phenomenon. Later called a nuee ardente by Albert Lacroix, a geologist from France who studied the eruption, it consisted of a very dense hot mixture of gases and solids, so compact it rolled down the hill almost like water, expanding rapidly as it did so. Further nuee ardentes were to sweep through St Pierre; but there was no-one left alive to suffer it.
The terrible cost of this single event; over 30,000 lives lost. The eruption would claim another 1,500 when further nuee ardentes struck another town, Morne Rouge, on the 30 August.

The first ever photograph of a pyroclastic flow, or nuee ardente, by Heilprin, 1902.
Suddenly the menace of the volcano was brought to the world’s attention. A modern, thriving city had been utterly wiped out. Scientists swore to find an answer to this, including one Thomas Jagger, the man responsible for founding the Hawai’i Volcano Observatory.


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