One of the biggest environmental problems of the world is that of erosion. The seas bite at our coastlines, the wind blows away our soil, floods scour away our houses. Land is talked of being lost. Rarely do we hear stories about new land appearing. Three big processes make this happen. It is believed at some stage Bangladesh might get a lot larger. Even with sea level rise and storm surges, the amount of deposition coming down the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers from the Himalayas is building huge sand banks in the Bay of Bengal. A second way is when massive earthquakes occur offshore the plates can throw up a new chunk of sea bed that breaks. The largest expansion comes when a volcano spews out over the sea and creates land. In one dramatic case in the 1960s the whole new island of Surtsey was created over four years. In the Caribbean, the most active volcano of recent years is the Soufriere Hills on Montserrat. Like many volcanic island in the eastern Caribbean, there had been some evidence of volcanic activity for several hundred years, but it had been limited to gas release, hot springs bubbling up from time to time, vegetation dying off or a bit of steam here or there. Montserrat’s volcano had not truly erupted for over a hundred years and was classified as dormant.
Then in 1995 it started to show signs of movement again; earthquakes were felt around the island, ash started to plume into the sky. As a precaution people from the southern third of the island were evacuated north. The capital, Plymouth, just so happened to be on the south west side of the volcano, and some of the more populated villages were scattered around its fertile slopes. The population of the island, a UK overseas territory, was around 11,000 at the time.
The size of the eruptions continued to grow, and there seemed no chance of an immediate return to people’s homes. Many moved away from the island altogether, some heading for the UK or USA, others to neighbouring islands such as Antigua. The north was more sparsely populated and not particularly well suited to the influx of people. The small airport was on the north western side of the volcano, the main port and ferry terminal was in Plymouth.
The ferocity of the activity continued to grow and in 1997 the worst happened. A series of pyroclastic flows demolished first the airport then Plymouth itself. Despite the evacuation, some people travelled into the region to look after crops, a few decided they would not leave their homes. Twenty seven people died in 1997 from the volcanic eruptions, and not just the inundation of the villages by ash and rocks spewed from the crater, but floods scooped up countless tonnes of loose material and filled valleys downstream. The island literally grew in size, especially on the eastern side.