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Skip Navigation LinksHome : Island Profiles : St. Lucia : Geothermal Activity
ISLAND PROFILES
St. Lucia - Geothermal Activity

The well-known Sulphur Springs of Saint Lucia is the hottest and most active geothermal area in the Lesser Antilles. The main area of Sulphur Springs comprises numerous hot springs, bubbling mud pools and fumaroles (steam vents) in an area of strongly hydrothermally altered clay-rich rock approximately 200 m x 100 m in size. Many fumaroles have temperatures 100°C or hotter, and temperatures of up to 172°C have been recorded. Numerous studies have been carried out over the past 50 years to investigate the geothermal energy potential of Sulphur Springs, to date, however, no attempt at exploitation has been made.


Sulphur Springs geothermal field. The constant emission of steam does not serve as a "safety valve" for the volcano.

Scientists collecting gas samples at a geothermal field. Changes in gas chemistry may indicate unusual activity at the volcano.

 Geothermal systems such as Sulphur Springs form when rainwater seeps into the ground where it is heated by hot rock. The hot water becomes buoyant, and rises back to the surface along cracks. In some places the water is heated so much that it rises as steam. The heat source for the Sulphur Springs geothermal system is probably the cooling magma body responsible for the young volcanism of the Soufrière Volcanic Centre. The diagram below illustrates this process.


Formation of geothermal systems

Currently, activity at Sulphur Springs is concentrated on the western side of the Sulphur Springs Road. However, extensive areas of hydrothermally altered ground together with stunted vegetation on the eastern side of the road (i.e. on the flanks of Terre Blanche) clearly show that this area was once active. Furthermore, the area beneath the viewing platform, including Gabriel’s crater, does not appear on a map of Sulphur Springs from the 1950s (Robson and Willmore 1955), indicating that this area of activity is relatively recent. It is possible that, over time, activity at Sulphur Springs might continue migrating to the south and west.

Such migration of activity in geothermal systems such as Sulphur Springs is quite normal. The area should, however, be watched closely for signs of further migration, as this may have a significant long-term impact on nearby residences and structures, such as the viewing platform. Migrating geothermal activity into areas of steep slopes may also increase the likelihood of landslides triggered by extensive hydrothermal alteration. Any significant changes in the geothermal features at Sulphur Springs should be reported to the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) and/or the Seismic Research Unit.

There are several misconceptions regarding Sulphur Springs. For details on these go to the Frequently Asked Questions section.

Hazards from Sulphur Springs
Scientists believe there is only a very slim chance of a magmatic eruption from the SVC in the next 100 years. However, there are serious ever-present hazards at Sulphur Springs of which visitors should be aware.

Hot geothermal systems such as Sulphur Springs, emit large amounts of harmful gases. Two of the more dangerous gases are carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. Breathing air with greater than 20% carbon dioxide can cause death. The gas is heavier than air and tends to accumulate in hollows in the ground, displacing the breathable air. Since it is colourless and odourless, people and animals are unable to notice that it is there and may suffocate. In areas of hot or cold soufriere people should not enter low-lying hollows to remove dead animals in case there is a buildup of carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen sulphide has a very strong and unpleasant smell, like rotten eggs. It is extremely toxic. Breathing low concentrations causes headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes and upper respiratory tract. Inhalation of hydrogen sulphide can seriously aggravate sinus and respiratory systems and can cause bronchitis.

Other dangers at Sulphur Springs include landslides, boiling pools, and phreatic (steam) eruptions.