By Courtney Travis, AccuWeather
The largest volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent on Friday erupted in spectacular fashion, sending an ash plume shooting an estimated 52,000 feet into the atmosphere and forcing the evacuation of thousands.
Authorities had ordered evacuations on St. Vincent Thursday evening, ahead of the expected volcanic eruption that occurred on Friday morning.
St. Vincent is a volcanic island located in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean and is home to La Soufrière, which is the island’s largest volcano. The population there is about 110,000.
Around 8:30 a.m., local time, on Friday, the volcano underwent what the scientists at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Seismic Research Center called an “explosive eruption,” spewing ash high into the air.
The National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) of Saint Vincent reported later in the morning that the ash plume had reached about 5 miles (8 km) into the air, and ash had fallen at Argyle International Airport. A NOAA-SSEC satellite estimated that the ash traveled an astonishing 52,000 feet into the atmosphere, or about 10 miles up.
The explosion of ash was so large that it was visible on from space on weather satellites. Southwesterly winds carried the cloud of ash over northern parts of St. Vincent and over the waters of the western Atlantic Ocean between the islands of Saint Lucia and Barbados.
NEMO reported that the ash was extending at least 20,000 feet (more than 6 km) to the northeast of the volcano.
Geologist Richard Robertson told News 784 in St. Vincent on Friday that the volcano had returned to a quieter period, but more eruptions are expected to follow.
”If there is a much bigger explosion, the ash can spread further to the south,“ Robertson said, adding that, “This could continue for days or weeks, and monitoring will continue.”
The UWI Seismic Research Center first noticed gases spewing from the dome of the volcano on Thursday morning.
As seismic activity continued and became more intense, with magma visible near the surface later on Thursday, the country’s National Emergency Management Organization raised the island’s alert level from orange to red, according to NPR, meaning that eruption was considered “imminent”.
Around 6:00 p.m. Thursday, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, announced in a press conference the evacuation order for residents in “red zones” on the northeast and northwest sides of the island.
This evacuation includes roughly 16,000 people on the island, according to WFAA, a WABC affiliate in Dallas, Texas.
I have issued an evacuation order to all residents living in the RED ZONES on the North East and the North West of the island. All residents are asked to act accordingly with immediate effect to ensure their safety and that of their families. pic.twitter.com/AJQlCDtOPg
— Ralph Gonsalves (@ComradeRalph) April 8, 2021
Government-led evacuations immediately began, but they were to be assisted by nearby cruise line ships, arriving Friday, to help get people to safety.
However, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, evacuations are more complicated than usual.
Gonsalves said in his press conference that people have to be vaccinated before boarding a cruise ship or to go to another island. The minister also highly recommended those taking shelter in Saint Vincent be vaccinated.
Even on Friday morning, fresh magma near the surface of the volcano left the sky aglow.
According to CNN, the La Soufrière volcano on St. Vincent has had five explosive eruptions in the past, with the most recent being 1979. There was, however, an uptick in seismic activity more recently in December of 2020.
In extremely powerful volcanic eruptions, the ash and aerosols released in the eruption can pass through the troposphere, the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere, and penetrate into the stratosphere, the second layer of the atmosphere.
If enough of the ash and other pollutants released in the eruption make it into the stratosphere, they can influence the climate around the globe. The boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere is about 6 miles (10 km) above the ground, a little higher than where commercial jets typically fly.