It Will Never Leave Me

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)