Wonders of the Natural World: The Paricutin volcano
Imagine being totally engrossed in agricultural work on your own land when… whoops… right next to you the ground cracks open and hot ash and stones suddenly begin to fly out!
This is exactly what happened to a Mexican couple, Dionisio and Paula Pulido, when they were busy cutting and burning undergrowth in one of their fields on February 20, 1943 when the Paricutin volcano, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, decided to be born.
In the words of Dionisio himself, this is what happened:
“At 4pm, I left my wife to set fire to a pile of branches when I noticed that a crack, which was situated on one of the knolls of my farm, had opened. . . and I saw that it was a kind of fissure that had a depth of only half a metre. I set about to ignite the branches again when I felt a thunder, the trees trembled, and I turned to speak to Paula; and it was then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself 2 or 2.5 metres high, and a kind of smoke or fine dust — grey, like ashes — began to rise up in a portion of the crack that I had not previously seen. . . Immediately more smoke began to rise with a hiss or whistle, loud and continuous; and there was a smell of sulphur.”
“I then became greatly frightened and I tried to help unyoke one of the ox teams. I was so stunned I hardly knew what to do. . . or what to think. . . and I couldn’t find my wife, or my son, or my animals. At last I came to my senses and I remembered the sacred Lord of the Miracles. I shouted out ‘Blessed Lord of the Miracles, you brought me into this world — now save me!’ I looked into the fissure where the smoke was rising and my fear disappeared for the first time. I ran to see if I could save my family, my companions and my oxen, but I could not see them and I thought that they must have taken the oxen to the spring for water. I saw that there was no water in the spring. . . and I thought the water had gone because of the fissure. I was very frightened, and I mounted my mare and galloped to Paricutin where I found my wife and son and friends waiting for me. They were afraid that I was dead and that they would never see me again.”
Three weeks before this ‘ground breaking’ event, there had been a series of loud rumbles and grumbles from deep within the earth at this spot and local people had been puzzled as to what was going on. This noise and vibration had actually been caused by a series of underground earthquakes which were connected, although no one expected it at the time, to the awesome birth of this particular volcano which is, in geological terms, what is known as a ‘cinder cone volcano’ and which is completely unique in that its birth, and consequent growth were witnessed from start to finish over a nine-year span of time.
Volcanoes usually take many years, even centuries to grow, but the Paricutin volcano was very different and within just a very short period of seven days it was already approximately the height of a five-storey building and, within a year it reached the astonishing height of 424 metres, well over 1,000 feet tall. This might not sound incredible to you, yet in the natural world, particularly in the world of volcanoes, mountains and other rock formations; it is astronomically fast and gave geologists and other scientists an unexpected opportunity to study the volcano’s rapid growth to maturity and, just nine years later its decision to go back to sleep!
The birth and life of Paricutin volcano was far from being a quiet event as, mostly during its first year, it violently erupted many times and spewed ash and molten lava over the surrounding 25 square kilometres of land, completely burying the nearby villages of Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro, whose residents were evacuated and relocated in new villages just out of the volcano’s range of destruction.
This very special event took place in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt in the Mexican state of Michoacan and is part of the Michoacan — Guanajuato Volcanic Field, and the Paricutin volcano is just one of 1,400 similar volcanoes located in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic belt and North America and, as its youngest member, is the only one whose birth and subsequent growth was not only witnessed and recorded, but also filmed. Clips of Paricutin volcano in action were included in a movie called Captain from Castile, a 20th Century Fox movie released way back in 1947.
From being very explosive throughout its first year of life, Paricutin volcano then settled down, erupting only periodically until deciding to go right back into deep hibernation just nine years later in 1952. And, if it follows the example of other cinder cone volcanoes, it is highly unlikely to ever become active again although, of course, it is impossible to be 100 per cent certain of this as nature has totally confounded humankind on far more than one occasion!