Volcano Travel Made Safe – How Montserrat Makes It Happen
Did we forget New Zealand’s tragedy already?
Such were the sentiments expressed on our Facebook page by UC fan Rosalyn Hutchinson the last time we posted about volcano travel to the Caribbean a few weeks ago. Considering the depth of the disaster at White Island, it’s easy to understand where Rosalyn was coming from. Yes, even uncommon travelers like us must have limits.
Just as no two volcanoes are exactly alike, though, so too do the rules that govern visiting them differ by destination. Indeed, there are volcanoes – even active ones – that you can visit safely. We experienced this first hand a few months ago in Montserrat Island.
A Recent History of The Soufrière Hills Volcano
Montserrat’s primary attraction and most notable geographic feature, the Soufrière Hills volcano began erupting in 1995 after laying dormant for centuries. In four short years, it buried the capital city in volcanic ash, Plymouth, as well as several other villages in the south of the island. Volcano travel at that time largely meant leaving the island as a good two-thirds of Montserrat’s population evacuated—mostly to the US, United Kingdom, and Canada. Thankfully, large swaths of the island’s Centre Hills and northern territories remained unaffected.
The early 2000s saw continued periods of volcanic activity. Since 2010, though, Soufrière Hills has calmed down quite a bit. It has rumbled some, steamed and vented, but no swollen lava dome and no new magma extrusions or pyroclastic flows.
Is Soufrière Hills Still Active?
Make no mistake, though: Soufrière Hills is still plenty active. In fact, it’s the only visibly active volcano in the Caribbean islands.
Editor’s note: Kick ’em Jenny is the Caribbean’s other currently active volcano. It sits on the seafloor about five miles north of Grenada. To see its crater, you’d have to dive to a depth of 600+ feet, which is HIGHLY unadvisable. So yeah, Soufrière Hills is the sole active volcano that you can actually see/visit in our region.
Hot steam, gas, and ash trailed skyward from vents near the summit each day of our visit. We also smelled sulfur at times while exploring the southern part of the island nearest Soufrière Hills’ volcanic areas, depending upon which way the wind was blowing.
Lava fields, lava lakes, and lava flows like the ones that make visiting Kilauea thrilling and treacherous? You won’t find them here.
So yeah, as active volcanoes go, Soufrière Hills has been pretty tame over the past decade. Officials in Montserrat, though, still don’t take any chances…
Safety First Volcano Travel
Soufrière Hills ranks as one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the world. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) was established on this British overseas territory back in 1995 in the wake of the eruption that year. The facility is managed by the Seismic Research Centre of the University of West Indies.
They partner with leading volcanologists around the world to keep a keen eye trained on Soufrière Hills. Dr. Graham Ryan, MVO’s Director, noted…
Monitoring is based on three main techniques: seismic, which measures earthquake activity; gas monitoring, which measures the amount of gas being released by the volcano; and ground deformation, which measures small shifts in the ground caused by subsurface magma movement. Taken together this data gives us an idea of the state of the volcano and possible future behaviour.
A keen eye is one thing. Sensible policies and enforcement designed to keep visitors far from potential danger areas, though, is the real difference in Montserrat.
The main safety precaution is the zoning system which designates levels of access to different areas. The area where the risk from volcanic hazards is highest has been designated Zone V. In this area access is controlled by the Disaster Management Coordination Agency (DMCA). They evaluate and decide on all visit requests to Zone V.
Visiting the Ruins of Plymouth and Zone V
Indeed, you can’t just jump in your rental car and head-on into the ruins of Plymouth to scout around on your own. Neither can you try to get up close and personal with the volcano itself. No one is allowed within three miles of the summit. At the same time, access anywhere within the Zone V exclusion zone is strictly controlled.
You need a volcano tours guide certified by the Government of Montserrat. Your certified guide needs a police escort. Also, your guide needs to continually communicate with the MVO so that they are always 100% aware of exactly where you are within Zone V. The reason…
The volcano observatory can also give emergency warnings in the case of rapid escalation in volcanic activity.
Scientists monitor seismic measurement equipment located on the volcano in real-time, 24/7. If you’re in Zone V when the volcano shows signs of acting up, you will receive a notice allowing ample time to get to safe ground.
Is Volcano Travel to Montserrat Safe?
The potential for danger is lower outside of Zone V, of course. Still, officials make public safety a top priority. Not only is Montserrat well-versed in evacuation procedures, it’s also a very tight-knit community.
Visiting the island of Montserrat is probably less dangerous than a lot of other destinations due to its very low crime rate. Visiting Zone V for a limited period also carries a low risk due to a number of factors. 1) The distance from the volcano. 2) The current low level of volcanic activity. 3) The constant volcanic monitoring and communication and safety protocols in place.
However, the Soufrière Hills volcano is an active volcano and must be treated with the caution and respect it deserves.
In addition to respect and caution, I might also add that it’s impossible not to hold the volcano in awe. In all of the Caribbean, Soufrière Hills represents nature in her rawest, most powerful form. Seeing an active volcano like this, as up close as allowed, is a singular experience not possible anywhere else in our islands.
Thanks to the MVO and public safety officials in Montserrat, volcano travel adventures here are also among the safest you can enjoy anywhere.
Our Volcano Travel Experience in Montserrat
We visited Montserrat in late-September 2019, arriving by ferry from Antigua. We made our first stop the MVO, which I highly recommend. Here you can get a real sense for the history of Soufrière Hills and just how closely it’s currently monitored. (You’ll also enjoy one of the best views of the volcano from anywhere on the island.)
From there, we linked up with our tour guide, Norman Cassell (Tel: 664-492-1672). He made all of the arrangements for our police escort and MVO oversight, while also serving as a wealth of information on the volcano’s history. Everyone in Montserrat has a personal eruption story, but few are as amazing as Norman’s. It’s worth it to seek him out just to hear his tales.
Norman also showed us some pretty amazing beaches and other secret spots that are off-the-beaten-path even for Montserrat! Definitely look him up and tell him we say hello!
Also, before you go, be sure to check the MVO Facebook page for weekly updates on volcanic/seismic activity at Soufrière Hills.