David Pyle

David Pyle is a volcanologist, and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. His first encounter with volcanoes was at the age of 7, when he visited Villarrica, Chile, shortly after an eruption. David studied geological sciences at the University of Cambridge, and later completed a PhD on the 'older' eruptions of Santorini, Greece. After a short post-doc at the California Institute of Technology, David returned to a lectureship in Cambridge. In 2006, he moved to his current post in Oxford. David tweets at @davidmpyle

Thermal imaging of volcanic eruption plumes

Timeseries images from thermal imaging camera of two contrasting explosion plumes at Volcan Colima, Mexico. Image by Erica Webb, and published in her paper, Webb et al., 2014.

Timeseries images from thermal imaging camera of two contrasting explosion plumes at Volcán de Colima, Mexico. Image by Erica Webb, and published recently in her paper in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

Thermal imaging using infra-red cameras is now a widely used tool in the monitoring and analysis of volcanic explosions, and this pair of time-series snapshots of two short-lived ‘Vulcanian‘ explosions at Volcán de Colima, Mexico, shows one example of why. In each panel, times (in seconds) are times since the start of the explosion sequence;  and the temperature scales (vertical colour bar) show the raw temperatures, without any atmospheric corrections. Images collected using a Jenoptic VarioCAM, from the Protección Civil de Jalisco observatory located beneath the summit of Nevado de Colima, Mexico. 

Further Reading

A Harris, 2013, Thermal remote sensing of active volcanoes, a users manual. Cambridge University Press, 736pp. ISBN 9780521859455

E Webb et al., 2014, Thermal imaging and analysis of short-lived Vulcanian explosions at Volcán de Colima, Mexico, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 278-279, 132-145.

The destruction of St Pierre, Martinique: 8 May, 1902

May 8th marks the anniversary of one of the worst volcanic disasters on record: the destruction of St Pierre, Martinique, in 1902, at the climax of the eruption of Mont Pelée. Below are a snapshot of images from one of the contemporary accounts of the disaster, ‘The volcano’s deadly work‘, written by Charles Morris in 1902. This eruption followed just one day after a similarly destructive eruption of the nearby Soufrière of St Vincent.

photo 2

Original caption ‘The only photograph taken of the volcanic outbreak of Mt Pelee, May 8, 1902, during the height of the eruption, a scene as grand as it was appalling’. This shows ash clouds rising off the flanks of the volcano, presumably associated with the emplacement of the dense, hot pyroclastic ‘nuee ardentes’ that accompanied the eruption to devastating effect.

photo 4

Original caption ‘Interior of a steamship at St Pierre, after the whirlwind of fire’. There was considerable damage incurred to boats that were afloat offshore from St Pierre, as the hot ash clouds travelled a short distance across the water, and engulfed them.

photo 1

Original caption ‘The clock that told the story. The ruins of the hospital of St Pierre and the clock with the hands pointing to 7.50, which indicated the time at which the city was overwhelmed’.

‘An amazing and portentous summer..’

Front piece from Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, first published in 1789.

Where the hermit hangs his straw-clad cell‘. Front piece from Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne‘, first published in 1789. White was one of a number of writers who described ‘the peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed .. in every part of Europe’ in the summer of 1783, following the eruption of Laki in Iceland. Image L0018513, Wellcome Library, London.

Book review: Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe

In Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe take the reader on a dramatic tour of volcanic eruptions, death and destruction. At its heart is the story of the great 1783-1784 Laki fissure eruption, one of the most significant historical eruptions of Iceland, which belched 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and fifteen cubic kilometres of lava across southern Iceland in the space of nine awful months. Using Laki as the hook, the authors weave together first-hand accounts of the eruption and its many consequences, both locally and across the western world, with wider discussion of the present-day research on Laki and other eruptions.

The tale begins in Heimay, Iceland, in 1973, and the extraordinary example of a small eruption that literally reshaped an island community. The reader is then taken on a quick-fire tour of supervolcanoes; of classic eruptions and their human consequences, including Vesuvius, Tambora and Krakatau; to an exploration of some of the awful consequences of volcanic and evironmental crises in the 20th Century – from the tragedy of Lake Nyos and its carbonated lake, to the great smogs of 1950’s London.

The result is a compelling and readable account that is readily accessible and illuminating, and provides some fascinating examples of the intersections between volcanoes, humans and society.  Island on Fire succeeds as a ‘popular science’ text, covering complex aspects of science with a light touch, and without getting bogged down in detail. At the same time, the endnotes provide ample routes into the current literature for the inquisitive reader, and this will make it a useful source book for students of geography, Earth and environmental science.

Link to the book

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe, 2104, Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark, Profile Books, London. 224 pp. ISBN 978 178125 0044

Other links

Blog post by Alexandra Witze – Laki: the forgotten volcano

John Grattan and Mark Brayshaw, 1995, ‘An Amazing and Portentous Summer: Environmental and Social Responses in Britain to the 1783 Eruption of an Iceland Volcano’, The Geographical Journal, 161, 125-134

Gilbert White’s journal, The Natural History of Selborne


‘An amazing and portentous summer..’ is a slight misquotation from Gilbert White’s diary, first published in 1789.

Alexandra Witze kindly sent me a pre-publication copy of Island on Fire. 

Growth of the Kameni Islands Volcano, Santorini, Greece

Growth of the Kameni Islands Volcano, Santorini, Greece

Surface morphology of the Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece, based on new submarine and surface mapping, published by Nomikou et al. (2014).

A new paper, published in the journal GeoResJ, reveals the intricate details of the volcanic Kameni islands that lie in the flooded caldera of Santorini, Greece. The Kameni islands started growing shortly after the explosive eruption that formed much of the present day caldera. For the past 3500 years or so these islands have grown in pulses, with each new eruption adding more material to the edifice. In this new paper, we have brought together high-resolution imagery of the seafloor with a digital elevation model of the parts of the islands that emerge above sealevel, and have used this to reconstruct the piecemeal growth of these islands from an analysis of their surface shape. Much more remains to be done, but the fascinating part of the work for me was the dawning recognition of just how little we know about the lifecycle of submarine volcanoes, and how much of the volcanic history of Santorini remains underwater, and essentially untouched.

Interpretation of the growth of the Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece, over the past 2000 years.

Interpretation of the growth of the Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece, over the past 2000 years. From Nomikou et al., 2014 (Supplementary dataset 2).


Funding for this project came from agencies in Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States. Submarine multibeam data were collected from R/V AEGAEO, of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR), in 2001 and 2006, with support from the National Science Foundation. Onshore data were collected during a Natural Environment Research Council Airborne Remote Sensing Facility (ARSF) campaign to the eastern Mediterranean in May 2012, with additional support from the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and COMET.


P Nomikou, MM Parks, D Papanikolaou, DM Pyle, TA Mather, S Carey, AB Watts, M Paulatto, ML Kalnins, I Livanos, K Bejelou, E Simou, I Perros, 2014, The emergence and growth of a submarine volcano: The Kameni islands, Santorini (Greece), GeoResJ 1–2, 8–18. [Open Access]


LiDAR data from the NERC ARSF Campaign EU-12-12-137 to Santorini on figshare

Related posts

The Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece

Santorini: a volcano in remission

Small volcanic eruptions and the global warming ‘pause’

Wellcome Library, London  Mount Vesuvius emitting a column of smoke after its eruption on 8 August 1779. Coloured etching by Pietro Fabris, 1779.

Wellcome Library, London
A small eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 8 August 1779, part of a sequence that culminated in a moderate eruption. Coloured etching by Pietro Fabris, 1779. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0

A new paper in Nature Geoscience by Santer and colleagues revisits the volcanic scenarios used in modern climate model simulations. The authors consider the effects of including a ‘more realistic’ model for the influence of small volcanic eruptions on the climate system over the past two decades. Of course, more realistic means more difficult.. and one of the long-standing and unresolved problems with small volcanic eruptions is that not only are they small, but their consequences are unpredictable. These complications arise, in part, from the fact that the part of the volcanic system that is responsible for the climate impact are the emitted gases (notably, sulphur dioxide or SO2), and not the volcanic ash. In real volcanoes, these two parameters don’t seem to be very well correlated – and it has been well known for some time that small but explosive eruptions of sulphur-rich magmas might well have a disproportionate effect on the climate system (see, for example, Rampino and Self, 1984; Miles et al., 2004). For this reason, models of volcano-climate impact that only use information on eruption size (as measured by the Volcanic Explosivity Index) will usually only be a poor approximation to reality. A better representation might instead be a volcanic sulphur dioxide climatology, building on the extensive work of the volcanic emissions satellite-remote sensing community since the first volcanic plume satellite measurements in 1979. The currently most up to date compilations of volcanic SO2 emissions since 1996 can be found in Carn et al., (2003) and McCormick et al., (2013).

Reading between the lines, it looks as though Santer and colleagues have come to a similar conclusion – finding that their model simulations get a little closer to observations of tropospheric temperature trends when they introduce a ‘realistic’ volcanic scenario to simulate the past 25 years of eruptions. What a pity that the volcanic dataset they relied on to line up particular eruptions with aerosol optical depth perturbations was patched together from secondary sources.  Clearly, as they suggest, more work is needed – but why not start by bringing the  climate modeling community and volcanologists together to find out what we each think that we know ?

Further reading.

Carn SA et al. 2003 Volcanic eruption detection by the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) instruments: a 22-year record of sulphur dioxide and ash emissions, In: Oppenheimer et al. (eds), Volcanic Degassing, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 213, 177-202.

McCormick BT et al. 2013 Volcano monitoring applications of the Ozone Monitoring Instrument, In: Pyle DM et al. (eds), Remote Sensing of Volcanoes and Volcanic ProcessesGeological Society, London, Special Publications 280, 1259-291.

Miles GM, Grainger RG and Highwood EJ 2004 The significance of volcanic eruption strength and frequency for climate Q. J. R. Met. Soc. 130 2361–76

Rampino MR and Self S 1984 Sulphur-rich volcanic eruptions and stratospheric aerosols, Nature 310, 677 – 679

Santer B et al, 2014, Volcanic contribution to decadal changes in tropospheric temperature Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2098

Related posts.

For more information on William Hamilton and Vesuvius, try this delightful blog post by Karen Meyer-Roux.

Update on the eruption of Gunung Kelud

Area – thickness plot for Kelut fall deposits.  1990 data from Bourdier et al., 1997 (not all proximal data are plotted).

Preliminary ash thickness – isopach area plot for the February 2014 Kelut eruption. 1990 data from Bourdier et al., 1997 (not all proximal data are plotted).

The dramatic eruption of Gunung Kelud, or Kelut, led to a flurry of images of ash appearing on many social media platforms, including Flickr, Instagram and Twitter. As an experiment in a volcanology class, we sought out images that we could locate on a map, and by classifying the ash deposits as ‘light’, ‘moderate’ or ‘heavy’, generated a very rough contour map of the ash fallout from the eruption. The data show, very crudely, an exponential decay of ash thickness away from the volcano, and allows us to estimate the amount of ash deposited across Java during the eruption. Our current estimate is that the eruption may have deposited the equivalent of 0.2 – 0.3 cubic km of magma across the region. There are considerable uncertainties in this value, but it does confirm that the 2014 eruption was indeed substantial, rating as a Magnitude 4 (VEI 4) event.

Fuller details can be found in a preliminary report: Ash fallout from the 2014 Kelut eruption.

The eruption of Kelut, Java, February 2014

Image of the ash plume from Kelut, drifting across the Indian Ocean on 14th Feb, 2014. NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE).

Image of the ash plume from Kelut, drifting across the Indian Ocean on 14th Feb, 2014.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE).

I have used storify.com to put together a synopsis of the February eruption of Kelut, Java, Indonesia. There are some additional links to more detailed posts and related information below.

Related posts

Collections on Storify

Links for further information on activity and monitoring

The eruption of Kelut, Gunung Kelud, Java, February 2014

The dramatic eruption of Gunung Kelud (Kelut volcano, Java, Indonesia) provides excellent examples both of how quickly information can spread around the world during unfolding volcanic crises; and of the capacity that we now have for tracking and analysing volcanic eruption plumes in near real time.

  1. Kelut is a dangerous volcano with a volatile history, and the lead in to the latest eruption was short. The first images of the eruption from @hilmi_dzi caught the rapid lofting of the plume.
  2. And, about 90 minutes later, also from @hilmi_dzi, the spectacular lightning show that often accompanies ash-rich plumes. In this image, there is also a clear glow from the core of the plume, where the hot volcanic mixture of ash and gas is emerging from the vent.
  3. Earth pic of the day. Indonesia’s Mount #Kelud volcano erupts with static discharge lightning. Credit: @hilmi_dzi pic.twitter.com/ymG2ItUfEq
  4. Indonesia is well prepared for volcanic emergencies, with over 130 active volcanoes, and major recent eruptions at both Sinabung (on Sumatra) and Merapi (on Java); a theme picked up both by the Indonesian press, and in social media posts.
  5. Front Page, Feb. 15: Mt. Kelud’s eruption displaces thousands, halts flights, spews ash pic.twitter.com/zQXyaF3b9H
  6. Volcanic ash in Yogyakarta in 2010 (eruption of Merapi) and 2014 (eruption of Kelut)
  7. #jogja Foto Perbandingan dampak hujan Abu Vulkanik di tugu ,Merapi 2010 Kelud 2014 pic.twitter.com/jnUkmMJypa via @JogjaMedia| @LensaJogja
  8. Explosive volcanic eruptions pose a significant threat not only to communities living around the volcano, but also to air traffic. In this case, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Darwin, Australia, were quick to respond with forecasts of the likely spread of the ash in the atmosphere.
  9. Estimated extent and prediciton of the ash plume (VAAC Darwin). pic.twitter.com/XPchidd6Bt
  10. In the early stages of an eruption it can be quite hard to gauge how high the ash has been lofted in the atmosphere; and this is also something that can change quickly depending on the strength of the eruption.
  11. Kelut #volcano in Java is erupting – Darwin VAAC reports ash cloud to 15 km altitude  http://www.bom.gov.au/products/IDD65295.shtml 
  12. #Darwin VAAC says volcanic ash plume observed to FL550 500NM WSW of Mt Kalud, Java. Some flts in region cnld/diverted pic.twitter.com/VLXd4i8XCB
  13. For an explosive eruption of this scale, remote-sensing measurements from satellites can very quickly provide the cofirmation needed on the ground in terms of the scale of the eruption, and the location of the ash cloud. As explained on the NASA Earth website, satellites first detected the eruption at 11.09 pm local time (20 minutes before @hilmi_dzi‘s first photo, above); and at 12.30 am (local) the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured an image of the top of the plume rising above the clouds.Shortly after, a laser-ranging instrument (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar, CALIOP) flew over on board the CALIPSO satellite, providing the first direct evidence that the plume top had reached between about 20 km and 26 km height.
  14. A satellite recorded ash from Mt. Kelut at an altitude of 20 kilometers (12 miles).  http://1.usa.gov/1gFqkY5  pic.twitter.com/J1Q7OPvhV9
  15. Peter Webley expands on this in a blog post, showing a reconstruction of the plume in cross section.
  16. Volcanic Activity in the North Pacific and beyond: Visualizing the Kelut Volcano eruption cloud in Go…  http://volcanodetect.blogspot.com/2014/02/visualizing-kelut-volcano-eruption.html?spref=tw 
  17. Volcanologists and atmospheric scientists are quite interested to know how high eruption plumes reach because that information tells them both about the strength of an eruption (the stronger the eruption, the higher the plume); and also about the potential of an eruption to have an influence globally, which is usually thought to require an eruption to loft material into the stratosphere.  In this case, it appears that some of the plume did intrude into the stratosphere; but in fact the first look at the potential gas emissions (in particular sulphur dioxide) suggests that these are actually rather small.
  18. SO2 from #Kelud drifts over Indian Ocean.
    SO2 mass is modest – no measurable climate impact expected #climatechange pic.twitter.com/CSaxanK1sH
  19. Perhaps of more (academic) interest to scientists is the structure of the expanding ash cloud itself – notice the ripples visible in the infra-red image above.
  20. CALIPSO lidar data for #Kelud eruption show nice gravity waves in the umbrella cloud at ~19 km altitude pic.twitter.com/V3yqFGb4YP
  21. The eruption also literally sent soundwaves around the globe, with an infrasound signal detected by the global Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty Organisation array, as well as other infrasound networks – a promising tool in monitoring activity at the world’s active volcanoes.
  22. Global infrasound from the 13 February 2014 Kelut Volcano eruption in Java!  http://newsroom.ctbto.org/ 
  23. Earth Observatory of Singapore gets a sound check for their new infrasound station from #Kelud/#Kelut volcano. Will improve SE Asia coverage
  24. Across Java, of course, the eruption has caused substantial disruption with reports of over 100,000 people being evacuated, a number of fatalities, and disruption to transport networks due to the fallout of ash across a wide portion of Java. The tweets and images below capture just a little of the scale of the misery caused by this event.
  25. Airport to and from Surabaya, Yogya, Solo, Bandung are still closed until 6:00 am tomorrow due to volcanic eruption of Mt Kelud, East Java.
  26. Ash covers this airplane from the eruption of Mount Kelud near Java in Indonesia. #737 #Boeing pic.twitter.com/5HSDGN8dmm
  27. Volcanic ash covers a plane at Yogyakarta airport, about 200 km west of the Mount Kelud volcano on Java pic.twitter.com/TvDw7H9l8H
  28. Juanda Airport in Surabaya after eruption of Mt. Kelud, 1 of 4 airports on Java reportedly closed pic.twitter.com/4AxxVk8Kox via @madhannnn
  29. @AP Sat, Feb 15th. Volcanic ashes of Mt. Kelud, at Adisucipto Int’l Airport in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. pic.twitter.com/NizhwiHyh6
  30. Everyting is grey.. I can’t see the way..
    Volcano ash because of Mt.Kelud eruption
    #grey #Yogyakarta http://instagram.com/p/kd9QFsCW9e/ 
  31. Like a dead city.. taken from upstairs.. the trees and houses are covered by the ash of Mt. Kelud…  http://instagram.com/p/keDmSiCBaa/ 
  32. Suasana Puri Timoho Asri Baru II pasca hujan abu vulkanik Gunung Kelud . Hujan salju man 😀 #nofilter  http://instagram.com/p/keK63PyzXb/ 
  33. More ash, this time from Mount Kelud in Indonesia, in today’s #bikepic from Getty Images. pic.twitter.com/tBrQldxhkP
  34. The eruption of Mount Kelud in Malang, on the island of Java in Indonesia
    A duck walks through the mud and ash. pic.twitter.com/bP6vYFekzA

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The Kameni islands, Santorini, Greece

A glimpse of the spectacular Kameni or ‘burnt’ islands of Santorini, Greece from the air reveals in intricate detail the overlapping lava flows, explosion craters and fields of volcanic ash from which the islands have been built in successive eruptions over the past 2000 years, and more.

Air photo mosaic of the Kameni island of Santorini, based on images taken during a 2004 NERC Airborne Research and Survey Facility campaign

Air photo mosaic of the Kameni island of Santorini, based on images taken during a NERC Airborne Research and Survey Facility campaign in 2004, and published later in an open access paper (Pyle and Elliott, 2006). A high resolution (340 Mb) version of this image is now available from figshare.

Of course, what we can see from the air is just the literal ‘tip’ of the present-day volcano which has grown up within the flooded caldera of Santorini since the last major explosive eruption, the Minoan eruption of ca. 1600 BC. Historical records and accounts from as far back as the Greek geographer Strabo, suggest that there have been at least ten eruptions in and around the Kameni islands since 197 BC. It is quite likely that there have been more that either weren’t noticed (because they were underwater), or that have been forgotten about with the passage of time. The present day the Kameni islands have a volume of about 3 cubic kilometres (of lava), measured from the sea-floor, and must have grown up at an average rate of about 1 million cubic metres per year since the Minoan eruption.

Data sources.

The high resolution version of the composite aerial photograph of the Kameni islands is available to download from figshare,

Link to the original paper: DM Pyle and  JR Elliott, 2006, Quantitative morphology, recent evolution and future activity of the Kameni islands volcano, Santorini, Greece, Geosphere 2 (5), 253-268  [Open Access]

Related web pages and posts.

A blog post from August 2013 – ‘Santorini: a volcano in remission

Some web pages introducing the volcanic history of the Kameni islands.

Friday Field Photo – Alutu volcano, Ethiopia

Aerial view of a young lava flow spilling into the central crater of Alutu volcano, Ethiopia. Note the trees and houses for scale.

Aerial view of a young silicic lava flow spilling into the central crater of Aluto (Alutu) volcano, Ethiopia. Note the trees for scale. This is an excerpt from air photo 2012321-00238 taken during flight campaign ET12-17 by the Natural Environment Research Council‘s Airborne Research and Survey Facility in Ethiopia, in November 2012, as a part of a wider investigation of the behaviour and history of this volcano.  If you want to see more images from this campaign, you can watch air photo montages of flights over Corbetti and Aluto volcanoes  on YouTube.

Update: June 2015

Our open access research paper on Aluto volcano is now available online: Hutchison et al., 2015, Structural controls on fluid pathways in an active rift system: A case study of the Aluto volcanic complex, Geosphere 11, 542-562, doi:10.1130/GES01119.1

A volcanic retrospective: eruptions of the Soufrière, St Vincent

A volcanic retrospective: eruptions of the Soufrière, St Vincent

The records, reports and testimonies of past volcanic eruptions and their consequences contain a wealth of information from which we can learn valuable lessons. This, in a nutshell, is the starting point of one strand of the STREVA project, ‘Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas‘, which is a large programme funded by two British funding agencies (NERC and ESRC) and directed from the University of East Anglia by Jenni Barclay. This week, researchers from the STREVA team met in a workshop on St Vincent, a luxuriantly vegetated volcanic island in the southern Caribbean, to see what can be learned from the past history of this volcano and how this learning can be used mitigate the risks of future volcanic activity.

Soufrière St Vincent lava dome and crater. Photo by Paul Cole, January 2014. https://twitter.com/PaulCole23

Spectacular view across the crater of the Soufrière St Vincent, showing the lava dome that erupted in the centre of the crater in 1979-1980, and signs of recent land-sliding. The crater walls have been gradually enlarged and re-cut by successive eruptions, and their internal layers reveal the past volcanic history of the Soufrière.
Photo by Paul Cole, University of Plymouth, January 2014.

aerial view south eastern corner and windward side of St Vincent

Aerial view of the south-east corner of St Vincent, looking north along the windward coast. Inland, the topography is rugged, and often heavily vegetated, and rises towards the active volcano, the Soufriere of Sty Vincent, which is hidden under cloud at the top left of the picture.  The new airport runway, at Argyle, runs across the brown strip of land forming the eastern-most headland.

St Vincent is a volcanic island, and part of the arcuate chain of the Lesser Antilles volcanic arc. The active volcano on St Vincent is called the Soufrière; a name that describes its sulfurous nature, and shared by other volcanoes in the Antilles including the Soufrière Hills volcano (Montserrat), and the Soufrière of Guadeloupe.  While the geological record of past eruptions of St Vincent stretches back for hundreds of thousands of years, the historical record of known eruptions is short, but dramatic.

The first known explosive eruption of St Vincent was in March 1718. By all accounts this was a major eruption, preceded by an extended period of felt earthquakes. While there are no known first-hand descriptions of this eruption, a writer, thought to be Daniel Defoe, published an “An account of the Island of St. Vincent in the West Indies, and of its entire destruction on the 26th March last” in the Weekly Journal or Saturday’s Post of July 5th, 1718 (also known as Mist’s Journal), based on correspondence from ships that had been in the vicinity. This describes a short, but violent explosive eruption  “They saw in the night that terrible flash of fire, and .. heard innumerable clashes of thunder”, and the fallout of ash far downwind “In the afternoon they were surpriz’d with the falling of something upon them as thick as smoke but fine as dust, and yet solid as sand ; some ships had it nine inches, others a foot thick, upon their decks; the Island of Martenico [Martinique] is covered with it at about 7 to 9 inches thick; at Barbadoes it is frightful, even to St. Christophers it exceeded four inches.” Defoe’s account became well known when it was later included in a collection of his works (Romances and Narratives, Volume 15, edited by George Aitken and published in 1895/6). 

The first detailed account of the crater of the Soufrière dates to 1784 – when Alexander Anderson, then curator of the Botanic Gardens of St Vincent, wrote an account of  “The mountain of Morne Garou in the island of St Vincent and the volcano in its summit“. This letter was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, along with a fabulous plate showing the crater, partly filled with water and with a steaming dome (of what we now know to be lava) at its centre. In many respects, this view is remarkably similar to the state of the crater at the present day.

The next major eruption of St Vincent occurred in 1812, in an event which was captured dramatically both in written reports, and in a painting by JMW Turner (The eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent, at midnight on the 30th of April, 1812, from a sketch taken at the time by Hugh P. Keane). The observer who provided the sketch, Hugh Perry Keane, was a barrister and plantation owner; his diary of the eruption survives in an archive in Virginia, but not the sketch.

account of 1812 eruption

Description of the eruption of the Souffrier Mountain on Thursday night the 30th April 1812, in the island of Saint Vincent’. Extract from the Report from the Committee on Petition of Persons Interested in Estates in the Island of Saint Vincent, Parliamentary Papers of the House of Commons, Printed by Command, 7 May 1813, pp 182-193. The same description was published in The Times newspaper of 30 June 1812.

British Parliamentary Papers from 1813 contain a ‘Description of the eruption of the Souffrier Mountain on Thursday night the 30th April 1812, in the island of Saint Vincent’ which introduces the volcano and describes the precursory activity. This account had previously been published in The Times newspaper, and appears to be based on written testimonies from residents on the island that had been sent to the newspaper.

The Souffrier Mountain, the most northerly of the lofty chain running through the centre of this island .. had for some time past indicated much disquietude; and from the extraordinary frequency and violence of Earthquakes, which are calculated to have exceeded two hundred within the last year, portended some great movement or eruption..“. This account also provides a vivid and detailed description of the short-lived but violent eruption, and its immediate aftermath: “The birth of May dawned like the day of judgement. A chaotic gloom enveloped the mountain, and an impenetrable haze hung over the sea with black sluggish clouds of a sulphurous cast; the whole island was covered with .. cinders, scoria and broken masses of volcanic matter.

A petition from landowners across the island to the British Government outlined the extent of losses and damage from the eruption, explaining that parts of the island “have suffered in an extreme degree; the showers of volcanic matter .. having covered the whole surface of the ground [in that area] about ten inches deep;.. but most providentially, not many lives were lost.”

Nearly a century went by before the next eruption; a hugely destructive event that began in earnest on 7th May 19o2, just a day before the destruction of St Pierre on the nearby island of Martinique, following the eruption of Mont Pelée. The 1902 –  1903 eruptions of St Vincent resulted in a great loss of life (at least 1500), and severe economic impacts, all of which were widely documented in articles and reports at the time. As a result, we have a fantastic archive of primary observations, data and material to work with as we set out to investigate, retrospectively, the nature and consequences  of the 1902 eruption – a type of event which has occurred three times in the past 300 years.

Documentary evidence from this eruption includes the correspondence, reports and photographs from the wonderfully named Tempest Anderson, an opthalmologist, photographer and early volcano-tourist.  Anderson was rapidly commissioned to make a field visit to the island, which he published in early 1903. As this letter to the Royal Society attests he was a stickler for detail, and his accounts and photographic records from the time make for astonishing reading.


Letter from Tempest Anderson to the Assistant Secretary, Royal Society, from the Royal Society Archives.
Feb 15., 1903.
Dear Sir, with reference to the Plates for the Report on the Volcanic Eruptions in the West Indies which have been engraved by Collings from my negatives, I wish to inform you that Dr Flett and I have had great difficulty with Collings and have only at last with considerable perseverance been able to [over] get satisfactory proofs. As even now it is quite possible that some failures may occur when they are carefully printed I would be much obliged if you could arrange for printer pulls of all the plates be sent to me before the printing is finally proceeded with …’

Meanwhile, the details of the eruption and its effects are exhaustively recorded in Colonial Reports and Parliamentary Papers from the time.

Colonial Reports for 1902

Colonial Reports – Annual – for 1902-1903. St Vincent. ‘All minor events are eclipsed by the appalling eruption of the Soufrière volcano, which on 7th May awoke from its 90 years’ slumber to again hurl death and devastation over nearly one-third of the hapless Island of St Vincent‘, Edward J Cameron, Administrator.

After 1903, Soufrière St Vincent returned to a state of quiescence which wasn’t disturbed until 1971, when a remarkably quiet eruption built a new lava dome within the flooded crater of the volcano. This new activity, and the subsequent unrest on the nearby island of Guadeloupe in 1976, helped to stimulate the expansion of networks of instruments, including seismometers and tiltmeters, to monitor the volcano. This investment paid off quickly, with the rapid onset of new activity in 1979.

The 1979 eruptions began with only a very short period of unrest, starting with a strong local earthquake on April 12.  Eruptive activity began with a series of short-lived but violent explosions and that lofted a series of ash plumes, high into the sky on April 13, 1979; Good Friday. This heralded two weeks of vigorous activity that peaked with an 18 km high plume on April 17, and ended, with the cessation of measurable seismicity on April 29. After this, the eruption switched to the quiet extrusion of lava, slowly forming the dome that still sits in the crater today. The 1979 eruption caused much disruption, with 20,000 people evacuated to shelters, but no direct loss of life.

The Vincentian newspaper 20 April 1979

The Vincentian newspaper, Friday 20 April 1979 – one week into the eruption.

One of the goals of the workshop on St Vincent was to find out from the residents of St Vincent and neighbouring islands about the current awareness of volcanic risk, and risk communication. Participants included representatives of emergency management organisations both from St Vincent and the Caribbean region, as well as residents of St Vincent from all walks of life, including those with direct experience of the eruptions of the 1970’s, and people currently charged with reponsibilities across the spectrum of disaster management and response, both in the public and private sectors. This was a tremendous experience, and the STREVA team arel now working hard to analyse the results, develop new ideas and share understanding of how best to improve preparedness for future volcanic unrest and the response to future volcanic emergencies.

Discussions of how to respond to a volcanic scenario, guided by the current volcanic hazard map of St Vincent.

Workshop discussions of the likely response to a future volcanic scenario, focussing on the current volcanic hazard map of St Vincent.


I wish to thank archivists and librarians at the Royal Society, the Geological Society of London, the National Archives of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, the British Library, Cambridge University Library and the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, for access to archives and literature sources. Many thanks also to Paul Cole for the wonderful photo of the crater, to Willy Aspinall for the trails to Daniel Defoe and JMW Turner, and to Anna Hicks and Jenni Barclay for all of their work in putting the workshop together.

The STREVA project is funded by UK Research Councils NERC and ESRC under the Improving Resilience to Natural Hazards programme.

The workshop on St Vincent was supported by the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), and the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre and we acknowledge the support of many people and organisations both in St Vincent and across the Caribbean for their contributions to the discussions and for helping to make this event such a success.

Related Posts

Post on the Botanic Gardens of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Report on the STREVA workshop on Montserrat, October 2012: Montserrat, Open for Business.

Field Photo, Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat, 1998.

Post from Charly Stamper – Soufrière Saint Vincent on the blog Between a Rock and a Hard Place.