Volcanic Violence
PAGE POSTED JAN. 1997

1. Mount St. Helens: Back?

2. How volcanoes work

3. Science of prediction

4. Volcanic landscapes

5. Ultimate volcano

6. Ecology after the eruption

7. The youngest mountain


Birth of a volcano: 'I heard a noise, like thunder during a rainstorm, but I could not explain it, for the sky above was clear and the day was so peaceful, as it is in February'

Paricutin -- the wonder of the cornfield
In 1943, Dominic Pulido, a Tarascan Indian farmer in central Mexico, saw a volcano erupt from a cornfield that was ready to plant:

Rounded mountain top lords over treed field."In the afternoon I joined my wife and son, who were watching the sheep, and inquired if anything new had occurred, since for two weeks we had felt strong tremors in the region. Paula replied, Yes, that she had heard noise and thunder underground. Scarcely had she finished speaking when I, myself, heard a noise, like thunder during a rainstorm, but I could not explain it, for the sky above was clear and the day was so peaceful, as it is in February.
"At 4 p.m., I left my wife to set fire to a pile of branches when I noticed that a grotto, which was situated on one of the knolls of my farm, had opened ... and I saw that it was a kind of fissure that had a depth of only half a meter. I set about to ignite the branches again, when I felt a thunder, the trees trembled, and I turned to speak to Paula; and it was then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled out and raised itself two or two and one-half meters high, and a kind of smoke or fine dust -- gray, like ashes -- began to rise up in a portion of the crack ... Immediately more smoke began to rise, with a hiss or whistle, loud and continuous, and there was a smell of sulfur. I then became greatly frightened."

The Pulidos were the first people in the 20th century to see the birth of a volcano. By the time Paricutin went dormant in 1952, it had formed a 424-meter cinder cone in the highlands southwest of Mexico City. Paricutin is part of a 40,000 square-kilometer field containing almost 1,000 volcanoes in Guanajuato and Michoacoan states -- one of the largest fields in the world.

This area is part of the Mexican volcanic belt, which extends 1,200 km from west to east, from the Pacific to the Caribbean. The volcanic activity is related to the Middle American Trench, a subduction zone that parallels Mexico's Pacific coast.

Man holding chainsaw cuts a log. The forestry cooperative at New San Juan uses high-intensity tree farming to extract the maximum profit from its forests -- without clear-cutting or erosion.
© David Tenenbaum

Outdoor laboratory
The growing pile of glowing cinders at Paricutin became the perfect laboratory for volcanologists, who got a fine-grained look at the entire process of volcano-building. "Essentially for the whole nine years of its lifetime, there was a person watching it," James Luhr, director of the Global Volcanism Project at the Smithsonian Institution, said in 1997. "It was an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the details of building and collapse, to see things like lava flows rafting away chunks of the cone. In almost all other cases, we come upon volcanoes when they are almost dead."

Paricutin was a disaster: 25 square kilometers, including two villages, were covered with lava, and the surroundings were paved with ash thick enough to kill the forests. Eventually, a community forestry organization arose from the social and ecological dislocation. The Indigenous Community at New San Juan Parangaricutiro uses high-intensity tree farming to extract the maximum profit from its forests -- without clear-cutting or erosion (see "Entrepreneurship With a Social Conscience" in the bibliography).

Read all about it in our bibliography!

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