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St. Vincent - Blog

Full Circle

May 13, 2021

A volcano observatory is not a place for the faint of heart. My introduction to observatory life was an assignment to ‘man the drums’. As a teenaged cadet, I would spend a few nights at *Belmont helping the scientists keep an eye on the instruments (drum recorders) used in monitoring Soufriere. By then, the mountain had been exploding for about a week and the scientists needed fresh eyes to help out...at least for a couple hours. In 1979 those eyes provided some reprieve for those on the frontline, in 2021 those same eyes would again come in handy.

When a volcano blows, you need experienced people; people who can think on their feet. These people are as dynamic as they are hardcore. It calls for a varied team of earth scientists; the kind that are hands-on and practical. It requires people that can remain rooted when all else loses its mooring. You see the thing is, in volcanology, you use techniques that at best can only provide an obscured view of something happening deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Whatever we see is filtered by everything it has to pass through. That journey makes a world of difference. The data we collect is as much the result of the source as it is of the route taken. A good volcano scientist tries to re-trace the steps to the beginning. He (or she) must pay attention to signboards along the way. At times there will be forks in the road; this is where your gut and experience come in. With the right team and some luck, you will find your way and be able to say something about what the volcano is doing and likely to do. It is nearly impossible to get the full picture, so the job of an observatory scientist is rife with uncertainty. It makes sense then that the people who man an observatory are all “characters”. People who must not only put themselves in harm’s way to do their job, but also shoulder the burden of protecting the lives of others. Working conditions are often extremely stressful. This assignment requires a particular kind of mindset but more importantly a steely character. People who can be calm in distress, who can function in the chaos, are the people you want around. Relationships are important, otherwise you may not make it out alive. When this many ‘ologists’ get together there are bound to be sharp edges.

In an observatory one must be ready to respond, to act, to do whatever it takes to give the best scientific advice possible. You are always aware that the advice you offer helps to save lives. Still, to make decisions one must objectively look at data and allow thoughts of the implications to take a back seat.

Observatory life can be challenging, difficult, stressful, but strangely peaceful. You may ask “What mindset is best?” “What kind of people do you require?” Good questions. My sense is that it may have something to do with your path to the observatory.


*Belmont Observatory, St. Vincent & the Grenadines 



Author: Richard E.A. Robertson


Richie Robertson is a Vincie geologist working at The UWI-SRC on geo-hazards including risk, raising hazard awareness and building community resilience.


It Will Never Leave Me

May 6, 2021

I don’t know when I first lost track of the time, but my laptop’s “no backups for 78 days” is sometimes my only reference. The last couple of months are now a bit of a blur and I usually need to consult my notes if anyone asks me when the eruption started or how long it has been since the last explosion. I know we did some good science in the days running up to the first explosion but can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

A typical day at the observatory starts like this. Wake up and check the drums. “The drums” is an anachronism from the days when recordings from a seismometer were made with a pen drawing a trace on paper that had been wrapped around a rotating drum. Computers do all the work now, but we haven’t found a better way to display an entire day’s worth of seismic data at once so the drum plots are now virtual. Satisfied that there is nothing of concern on the drums, it’s then time for a shower, another check of the drums, and then make some breakfast. I usually eat my breakfast-in the Ops Room, watching the drums. This requires a short ten foot walk outside, seriously risking a light dusting of ash on the food. I might then have to clean up the mess left by animals going through the trash – if that was Tremor the pig, he or she is bacon. Check the drums again, then start thinking about lunch. Maybe it was a mistake evacuating the only restaurant for miles around.

We have two buildings at the observatory. The accommodation building is well equipped and sleeps up to four, but two is better. The fittings have been updated as needed, so we have a washing machine, an ironing board (unused because the person that requested it has gone) and, most recently, cable TV. We have had to endure power cuts and water problems, but NEMO and BRAGSA have always come through for us. The worst thing about the house for me is trying to sleep. Because of the ash, we had every window and door sealed in a vain attempt to keep it out, making the rooms very hot and stuffy. The other building is the observatory proper, with the Ops Room and two equipment rooms, one of which doubles as a bedroom. The Ops Room is air conditioned and we try to keep it ash free, again in vain. I tried introducing a rule that only the seismologist was allowed to eat in the Ops Room, but that lasted less than a day.

For a long time there were three of us here; the rasta, the bald head and the rock star. We worked shifts to have someone in the Ops Room at all times. If something happened during the night, you had to wake the other two up because we wanted to miss nothing. None of us are really domesticated or even tidy, so the place was a bit of a mess and the fridge had things in it that were older than the volcano. But we never fought and hardly ever grumbled. One of the memories that I will take away from this eruption is the pleasure of working under very trying circumstances with colleagues that I respected and trusted. It makes the job a lot easier. Eventually the domestic situation was saved by the arrival of the Greek, a scientist who trained as a chef and loves to cook and clean. And never grumbles about it.

The eruption itself was spectacular and there are some things about it that still amaze me. The phenomenal rate of dome growth we saw before the first explosion; I still half-expect someone to pop up with evidence that shows it was a dream. The incredible non-stop venting that just went on and on and on. And the textbook-like nature of the seismic activity.

Most of all, I will remember the warmth and appreciation of Vincentians from all walks of life. We have had numerous donations of food and drink to the observatory, from The Prime Minister’s wife’s lasagna to a local farmer’s fresh fruit and homemade smoothies. Workers that come to the observatory to fix things to keep us going always seem to have a kind and encouraging word. People have even stopped us in the street or the supermarket to say thanks. I have never felt that level of appreciation from a community in my life, and it will never leave me. St Vincent will never leave me.

Author: Roderick Stewart

Roderick Stewart is a UWI-SRC volcano-seismologist based at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO)



It Takes a Team 

April 22, 2021 

baldheada Rasta and a rock star walk into a bar... sounds like the set up to a pretty good joke but in reality, these three formed the frontline of a formidable team when La Soufriere decided to blow its top A teenager the last time La Soufriere erupted; the baldhead would become the face of this latest episode. The rasta, a native Montserratian displaced by another ‘Soufriere’ as a teenager himself, studies volcanic gases. The rock star, a keen Scot with an eye for earthquakes, would ultimately sound the warning that took thousands out of harm’s way. Geologist, Prof. Richard Robertson, gas specialist Dr. Thomas Christopher and volcano-seismologist Roderick Stewart are all part of the larger scientific team keeping an eye on La Soufriere in St. Vincent.

 

The UWI Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC) like many institutions in the region, predates the formation of the independent nations it now serves. In response to a series of volcanic crises in the 1930’s, The Volcanological Research Department was established in 1953 to provide a base for scientific response to eruptions in the British West Indies. Today the UWI-SRC monitors earthquakes and volcanoes in 9 English-speaking Eastern Caribbean territories. Our responsibilities split the team between the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and St. Augustine, Trinidad. Our scientists and technicians are a mix of homegrown talent and international flavour. Trinis, Vincies, Montserratians, and the occasional Jamaican all work alongside those with Kenyan, British, Greek, Chilean, Aussie and French passports.

 

We are a mixed bag of tricks or maybe a 'pelau' might be more appropriate (the author is hungry)Geologists, seismologists, geo-physicists, engineers, ICT professionals, administrators, technicians and science communicators all pitch in to make sense of nature at its more interesting turns. No man is an island, so it makes sense that our Director, Dr. Joseph, is a woman adept at rallying the troops.  The days are often long; days when fear must take a back seat to duty, but these are days that you do not get through alone. We may not see them often, but any chance to link up with our Disaster Management friends ‘up the islands’ is always something to look forward to. So, whether it’s posting to the ‘gram or collecting rock samples, hiking to the Valley of Desolation (Dominica) or microzonation in Port of Spain (Trinidad), looking down a microscope or Tsunami week in Bim (Barbados).... it takes a bloody good team! 


Author: Omari Graham     


Omari Graham is a PhD Volcanology student and Education & Outreach contributor at the UWI Seismic Research Centre. He combines his training in Physics with a love of communication to make science more accessible. Eight years of outreach experience throughout the Eastern Caribbean and natural comedic timing shine through in his workshops and training sessions.


 

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Website: www.uwiseismic.com 

Social Media: @uwiseismic 



A Birthday Party Like No Other 

La Soufrière Eruption: Sunday 11 – Tuesday 13, April 2021 

As if to commemorate the anniversary of the 1979 eruption, Tuesday 13th April 2021 began with another explosive episode at La Soufrière. The mountain reminded us that this eruption was still in full swing with a mighty puff at 6:30am on Tuesday. Though this episode was less vigorous than the one that preceded it on Monday, it still generated an impressive sight. The explosion was announced by an increase in long-period earthquakes that gave way to seismic tremor during venting.

  

On Monday April 12thfollowing an overnight burst of tremor, La Soufrière delivered its largest explosion since a break in near continuous ash venting that started on Saturday evening. Monday’s predawn explosion generated pyroclastic flows (super-heated avalanches of ash, gas and debris), a first for this eruption. This was confirmed by Prof. Robertson and Dr. Christopher during an afternoon observation mission facilitated by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Coast Guard. The Larakai Valley is fed by the lowest point at the summit and brought material all the way to the sea. Further south on the Leeward coast the village of Fitz Hughes was a picture of gloom. The village seemed to bear the brunt of the heavy ashfall experienced by those communities closest to the volcano. The windward coast would reveal much of the same. Owia, Fancy and Sandy Bay, though severely impacted by the ash, remained untouched by the dangerous pyroclastic flows.

 

Most of Sunday was dedicated to documenting the large amounts of ash deposited across St. Vincent since the Saturday. Barbados also experienced heavy ashfall on Sunday. Day turned to night as ash blanketed the non-volcanic island east of St. Vincent. Though sea-level winds generally move east to west in the southern Lesser Antilles, winds in the upper-atmosphere travel west to east and took the ash to Barbados. During the explosive phase of the eruption, residents of St. Vincent and neighbouring islands - Barbados, Saint Lucia, Grenada - can expect more ash events like these and must be prepared to cope with their effects.  

Happy Birthday La Soufrière...  


Author: Omari Graham  


Omari Graham is a PhD Volcanology student and Education & Outreach contributor at the UWI Seismic Research Centre. He combines his training in Physics with a love of communication to make science more accessible. Eight years of outreach experience throughout the Eastern Caribbean and natural comedic timing shine through in his workshops and training sessions.



 

For information on living with volcanic ash visit the International Volcanic Hazard Health Network (IVHHN) at www.ivhhn.org/information