The birth of a Mexican volcano inspires scientists 80 years later

SAN JUAN PARANGARICUTIRO, Mexico — The ground is still hot in the crater of Paricutin – the first volcano of its kind to have its entire life cycle documented by modern science when it erupted 80 years ago.

In western Mexico, the surrounding landscape features the pine-covered peaks of older volcanoes, green avocado orchards, and a church steeple peeking over the spot buried by lava decades ago.

Volcanoes are still being born around the world, and scientists believe another one is forming in the volcanic field that straddles this area, they just don’t know when.

That is why last week about a hundred geologists, volcanologists and seismologists visited Paricutin to commemorate the anniversary, share their experiences and talk about disaster prevention.

The birth of Paricutin and its nine-year eruption was a cornerstone in the study of the relatively small type of volcano that erupts only once, said Stávros Meletlidisz, a Greek researcher at Spain’s National Geographic Institute.

The world’s most famous volcanoes were thousands of years old when they erupted in catastrophic eruptions: Mount Vesuvius in Italy, which buried Pompeii in 79 AD; Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which killed tens of thousands in 1815.

It is rare to witness its new origins. It may start with a strange noise.

Meletlidis remembers hearing a deep rumble in September 2021 before spotting a gas plume on the Spanish island of La Palma. It was the latest new volcano to form in a populated area. He and his team have been watching this for four years. The eruption was the “last gasp” of a process that began 10,000 years earlier in the center of the Earth, he said.

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Guadalupe Ruiz, 92, remembers hearing such a noise on February 20, 1943, after weeks of small tremors in the western Mexican state of Michoacan.

Then he felt “like water rising up underground” and finally, over the next few days, “like thunder or the kick of a horse” as Paricutin’s cone began to form and rocks tumbled around him, he said.

Ruiz was then a 12-year-old girl in San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico, where she and her neighbors believed the world was coming to an end. A farmer running with his hat covered in ash said his cornfield had opened up.

“They told us it was hell,” Ruiz said, braiding her long gray hair.

A team of US Interior Department geologists and Mexican scientists visited the site 20 times between 1943 and 1945 and summarized the eruption in a report more than a decade later. On that initial day, there was a slight explosion, followed by “a small eruptive column that carried dust and some hot rocks rising from this new vent,” the report said.

“After about 8 hours of such activity, the new volcano began rumbling and ejecting glow bombs with great force,” the statement said. It was reported to have reached a height of 167 meters (548 ft) within six days.

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The adults were crying, Ruiz recalled.

Curious children tried to get close “to see how the lava moves little by little,” said Abel Aguilar, his hands like waves. He was 5 years old then.

The landscape went from a “small and beautiful volcanic monster” to a “desolate and devastated world” of dying trees and ash-filled houses, wrote Mexican journalist José Revueltas, who visited Popular newspaper 40 days after the eruption.

When the geologists arrived, they comforted the community because they were able to explain what had happened and, importantly, provide jobs, Ruiz said.

“My father took the Americans on horseback to see where the fire was out and where the little mountain was forming,” he said.

Paricutin’s lava eventually covered seven square miles (18.5 square kilometers). Its slow progress allowed residents of surrounding communities to move onto government-donated land.

No one was killed.

Unlike earthquakes, volcanoes sometimes give people time to react.

In the years leading up to the 2021 La Palma eruption, tremors became more frequent a week before the eruption. Also, deformations on the surface indicated that the magma was pushing up. Two days before the eruption, there was a strong smell of sulfur in the springs observed by scientists.

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Paricutin Volcano is located in a volcanic belt that crosses Mexico.

Earthquakes in recent years, including an eruption late last year, have raised fears of another volcano, said Luis Fernando Lucatero, the local civil defense coordinator. Scientists later confirmed that last year’s quakes were superficial and no magma rose to the surface.

The Geophysical Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico has installed seismographs in key locations to monitor the volcanic field and trained local leaders to detect other signs.

According to Denis Legrand, one of the project’s volcanologists, more equipment and personnel are needed because with the current number of stations, some quakes may go unnoticed until it is too late to react.

A year and a half after the beginning of the Paricutin eruption, the inhabitants of the largest city of San Juan left in procession behind the image of their patron saint and rebuilt their city and church elsewhere. The old city was later buried by 50 feet (15 meters) of lava.

While today the volcano attracts visitors who bring in an important source of income, the buried temple is a reminder of what the earth has unleashed.

“A volcano gives life. Sometimes it also destroys me,” said Meletlidis.