Early morning view of La Soufrière volcano taken from the Belmont Observatory. The white low-lying cloud cover over the volcano and partly over the sea is due to a sustained period of volcanic gases and steam being emitted from the dome which was carried westwards by the winds. (UWI SRC, Professor Richard Robertson)
|Present La Soufrière Alert Level:||ORANGE||There is a highly elevated level of seismic and/or fumarolic activity or other unusual activity. An eruption may begin with less than twenty-four hours’ notice.|
It has been just over three months since the La Soufrière Volcano began erupting effusively. Now, scientists are observing changes that indicate a change in the eruption type may be underway.
Professor Richard Robertson of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI SRC) explained on Thursday that the volcano can erupt explosively in “hours or days.” Professor Robertson is currently the lead scientist monitoring the volcano.
In the emergency press conference, Robertson explained that the heightened volcanic-tectonic (VT) earthquakes in March had suggested that fresh magma was trying to get to the surface. Over the last 2-3 weeks, increased (felt) earthquakes deeper below the volcano was being recorded, marking a change in the volcano’s behaviour.
The Prime Minister said that no evacuation order has been given, but the relevant legal declaration has been made to put the various agencies on alert.
On April 8th at approximately 3:00 AM local time, a volcanic tremor (VT) was observed by scientists based at the Belmont Observatory in St. Vincent until 3:40 AM. This first band of tremors was later followed by subsequent bands at 5:00 AM to 6:20 AM, 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM, around 10:15 AM, and 1 PM. This information is according to the UWI SRC and Professor Robertson. Tremors are the continuous vibration of the ground, according to Robertson.
This type of seismic signal, or “banded tremors,” is usually associated with the movement of magma and fluids close to the surface. Clouds of steam could also be seen from the observatory during periods of tremor. These gases have been sustained, which is another indication that fresh magma is coming through, Robertson said.
He said that the suggestion is that this magma is at or close to the surface and the possibility of the volcano moving to an explosive state has increased significantly, based on the activity being seen. However, given the data, the monitoring team is still unable to say when an explosive eruption might happen, Robertson said, adding that what is clear is that the volcano has “upped the ante”. Professor Robertson explained, “we are now into a period where we will not be surprised if sometime in the future we have explosion or explosive activity.”
Robertson, however, said that his team would also not be surprised if the volcano continued to erupt effusively, as it has been doing for the last three months. The geologist emphasized that an explosive eruption can happen anytime now, adding that there could be more clear signals or an explosive eruption in the next few hours or days. “The volcano has changed, it has given us a bit more signals,” he said, adding that the eruption began with effusion, there was then the VT earthquakes and now the tremors that are associated with steam being driven by magma. He said that the possibility that the material now coming out of the volcano could have more energy is what increases the chances of an explosive eruption.
Robertson said that his recommendation to the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) is that preparations be finalized within a few hours because scientists are unsure about the time scale of an explosive eruption.
What are officials doing?
Michelle Forbes, the director of NEMO, said that her team had been in discussions, at Cabinet, with various agencies to heighten preparation in the event that an evacuation order is given. She said that disaster managers were preparing shelters, the response mechanism had been fully activated, and that the National Disaster Management Council would meet at 2 PM.
She said that communities north of Rabacca Dry River should be ready in the event that an evacuation order is given. Forbes said that arrangements should be put in place to move elderly persons who need to move and that NEMO is working with agencies of government and the private sector to have things in place in the event of an evacuation.
Ralph Gonzalves, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines made a Stage 3 Disaster Declaration. Under the NEMO Act, orders the relevant agencies to prepare for a possible eruption of the volcano. The next stage is Stage 4, indicating that an explosive eruption is actually taking place. This alert stays within the framework of an orange alert, the stage at which the alert has been since the effusive eruption began in December.
The Prime Minister noted that no evacuation order had been given but that there is a declaration that there is a substantial prospect that a disaster will strike. He said that his government will follow the science and will continue to take the advice of Professor Robertson and his team of scientists.
“And if the occasion arises within the next few hours or the next few days, that it becomes necessary and desirable for an evacuation order to be issued, then it will be issued and this is the stage where that declaration is made within the framework of the law,” he said.
He said that Robertson had told the government that if the volcano erupts explosively, there might be a four-month period of evacuation.
Next Monday’s scheduled reopening of school in St. Vincent has been suspended until further notice.
International Assistance If La Soufrière Explosively Erupts
The Prime Minister said that his government has been in contact with friendly nations, including the United States, Cuba, and Venezuela to discuss possible assistance. He said that Barbados and St. Lucia are willing to receive evacuees, but they will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Further, Royal Caribbean has indicated that it could get to St. Vincent by Wednesday night, a cruise ship that can house 1,500 persons, who will also have to be vaccinated before they are allowed to occupy the vessel.
There is NO ‘explosive’ eruption at the La Soufrière volcano at this time. La Soufrière continues to have effusive eruptions as hot magma reaches the surface at extreme temperatures. This appears in the night as fire or a bright red glow above the crater. As the dome gets higher and closer to the crater’s rim, this phenomenon will continue to be visible on clear nights.
The alert level remains at Orange. The volcano continues to exude magma on the surface and steam can still be observed from the Belmont Observatory. Persons living in areas close to the volcano should expect strong sulfur smells for several days to weeks, depending on changes in wind direction.
NEMO is also encouraging residents especially persons living in communities close to the volcano to heighten their preparedness in the event that it becomes necessary to evacuate at short notice.
The NEMO is reminding the public that no evacuation order or notice has been issued. NEMO continues to appeal to the public to desist from visiting the La Soufrière Volcano and especially going into the crater since doing so is extremely dangerous.
According to the SRC, the new volcanic dome is extremely dangerous for those in close proximity as it can explode at any time without warning. People have been killed in this way. This warning comes as images from a birthday photoshoot surfaced on social media.
Official information will originate from St. Vincent and the Grenadines National Emergency Management Organization and the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center.