Tuesday, December 15, 2009


If you think you're having a bad day, consider the plight of Dionisio Polido, a poor farmer in the Mexican state of Michoacan, 200 miles west of Mexico City. One Saturday afternoon, February 20, 1943, Senor Polido was plowing his cornfield with a team of oxen pulling a wooden plow. His wife Paula and their young son were nearby burning some shrubbery, preparing for the Spring planting. Suddenly they heard hissing sounds and saw the earth in front of them crack and open up a fissure almost 7 feet across. Smoke began pouring from that hole, spreading ashes on the ground. A sulphuric smell like rotten eggs emanated from the ground.

Polido went to look into the hole and saw that it was only a couple of feet deep. He vainly tried to fill it with dirt, but then he felt the ground beneath him rumbling like thunder. He turned to his wife and son who had already fled the scene. Then he turned back to the hole where the ground had swelled up and risen 7-8 feet high. The smoke began pouring out with greater intensity.

Needless to say, Senor Polido was very upset. His thoughts were for the safety of his family and his animals. He ran to the spring and found that the water was gone. By then the terrified farmer was frantically reciting every prayer he knew, as he jumped on his horse and galloped into the town of Paricutin. There he found his family waiting for him, relieved that he was safe.

But it gets worse. What Senor Polido didn't know was that he was witnessing an extraordinary event--the birth of a volcano. Couldn't it happen on somebody else's land? Polido excitedly told his story to the local authorities, and the mayor sent out an investigating committee. They arrived at the scene a couple of hours later and found a large hole with dense black smoke pouring out.

That night the explosions and fireworks began. Within a week, the explosions occurred every few seconds, spewing ash and cinders high into the air. By that time, the eruptions had built up a cinder cone 500 feet high. Polido's farm had vanished, buried under a mountain of ash. Red hot lava began pouring out in waves headed for town at the rate of 100 feet per hour. Within 10 weeks the volcano grew to be more than 1000 feet high.

It was no longer just Sr. Polido's problem. The village of Paricutin had to be evacuated along with another nearby village, San Juan Parangaricutiro. Both villages were overwhelmed by the lava flows. By July, only the roof and towers of the Paricutin church remained visible as the cooling lava was still advancing at 600 feet per day.

Mercifully, nobody was killed during the eruption although 3 people were killed by lightning associated with the eruption. According to the Paricutin website, "lightning bolts, as many as 30 an hour, flashed and cracked 500 to 1500 feet in length through the ash cloud." However it was devastating to plant and animal life. As many as 4000 farm animals and 500 horses died from breathing the volcanic ash.

This event proved to be a bonanza for geologists and vulcanologist who arrived in droves to witness this extraordinary event. Today, Polido and the experts would be making the rounds of Oprah and the Today Show. Time Magazine did cover the eruption. Even then-Vice President Harry Truman visited the site.

This type of eruption was called a Strombolian eruption (named after the famous Sicilian volcano), meaning that it exploded from a single vent and it gushed basaltic lava. According to the Paricutin website, the lava flow ultimately covered 10 square miles while its volcanic sand covered about 20 square miles. The powerful explosions caused ashes to fall as far away as Mexico City.

The volcano continued erupting off and on for 9 years. In a major eruption in 1949, almost 1000 people were killed. The volcano has been dormant since 1952 and is now considered extinct. While Sr. Polido and his neighbors didn't have insurance for this cataclysmic event, eventually the Mexican government took note and resettled them a safe distance from El Monstruo.

In closing, this event was the first time in history that scientists could observe the entire life cycle of a volcano. That was no consolation for the unfortunate Senor Polido. Perhaps they could have named the mountain after him.




Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home