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The Montserrat Volcano Observatory should be the highlight of any trip to Montserrat. Since 1995 the population of this gorgeous Caribbean island have endured one of nature's greatest spectacles - a volcano eruption - in the southern-half of the island. Yet it is perfectly safe to visit the island, and live there, so long as people do not enter the 'exclusion zone'.
From the observatory you will have an excellent view of the volcano, and will quite possibly witness pyroclastic flows tumbling down the side of the lava dome and many smaller rockfall events during the hour or so you spend at the observatory. You will also see live seismic recordings of these events and other earthquakes as they occur on the MVO 'helicorders'. And the MVO staff will explain to you how the volcanic eruption is a consequence of the subduction zone underlying the eastern Caribbean. This is where the Atlantic plate is being pushed down beneath the less dense Caribbean plate, causing a zone of earthquakes and volcanoes throughout the eastern Caribbean from Trinidad through St Vincent, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis and beyond.
You will also see some examples of the way volcanic activity is monitored. The most important technique is round-the-clock seismic monitoring of the volcano, which links to automated alarms which inform the scientists anytime a significant event or increase in volcanic activity occurs. This allows the scientists to immediately contact the aviation authorities to make them aware of ash-clouds that could bring down aircraft; such warnings are commonplace. Rarely it might also be necessary for scientists to go on local radio to explain what the volcano is doing when forever ash starts falling throughout the island, or even call the local authorities to evacuate people further north.
Visual observations and the MVO network of digital cameras also provide vital information, though views are often obscured by cloud. The deformation and gas monitoring networks provide valuable long-term information about whether the eruption may be escalating or drawing to a close.
One thing to note is that the eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat is very different to the eruption of volcanoes like Kilauea in Hawaii. The lava which erupts in Montserrat is much more viscous ('sticky') than lava in Hawaii, and so it doesn't flow easily. So instead of slowly moving streams of red lava, eruptions on Montserrat and throughout the eastern Caribbean are characterised by steep-sided lava domes. The dome on Montserrat has been growing at an average rate of 2 cubic metres per second for almost 12 years now. Sometimes it rises more quickly than this - and this results in more explosive activity. And sometimes it stops, often for months at a time. But most of the time, the eruption continues at this moderate rate, and parts of the dome break off and produce pyroclastic flows and rockfalls more or less continuously. Fumaroles around the dome can also be seen steaming.
If you are very lucky you may witness a major dome collapse. This is when most of the dome material - possibly more than 100 million cubic metres of it - collapses in the space of a few hours. Large pyroclastic flows are produced which enter the sea at various points around the southern half of the island, and above these intense lightning can often be observed caused by all the rapidly convecting ash particles in the air. Sometimes these pyroclastic flows can be seen to move as much as 2 miles out to sea - the reason for a maritime exclusion zone around the southern part of the island.
Anyone planning a holiday to Antigua should make a special effort to visit Montserrat. It is a much more tranquil island often promoted as 'the way the Caribbean used to be'. Visit the MVO first to get an understanding of the volcanic eruption and how the island was formed, then join a tour (or rent a car) to Jack Boy Hill and see Bramble airport, destroyed by a pyroclastic flow in 1997, and then visit Garibaldi Hill (or even better, St Georges Hill if its open) to look down on the devastated city of Plymouth. Then go for a walk in the Centre Hills (a good starting point is right behind the MVO) on a strenuous trail that takes you right to the other side of the island in 5 or 6 hours, and offers spectacular views of the volcanic eruption from a safe vantage point (visit the Montserrat National Trust for more information on trails and to find a guide). Another great thing to do on Montserrat is to go snorkelling / scuba diving, usually anywhere along the western coast from Lime Kiln Bay up as far as Rendezvous (contact the local dive master first though). Other great things include just soaking up the atmosphere of the local rum shacks. A good starting point is Gary Moore's WideAwake Bar in Salem. Also make sure not to miss Danny and Margarets for some freshly caught wahoo or tuna, and Idabelle's Bitter End Bar down in Little Bay.