Eruption of Pelee

May 08, 2002


Referred by: Volcano World
Summary authors & editors: Jim Foster

The deadliest volcanic eruption of the century and perhaps the deadliest disaster in the Western Hemisphere since 1900 occurred on the Caribbean island of Martinique - the northern most Windward Island of the Lesser Antilles. Martinique is part of a volcanic arc of islands, formed by the subduction of the North American Plate beneath the Caribbean Plate. When Pelee erupted on May 8, 1902, the coastal town of St. Pierre, about 5 miles (8 km) to the south of the Pelee, was virtually obliterated, as shown on the above photo.

The approximately 29,000 inhabitants of St. Pierre were killed by an incandescent, high-velocity ash flow, sometimes referred to as a nuees ardente (glowing cloud). Superheated gas and steaming volcanic ash poured out of the cone of Pelee and sped down its flanks. Within minutes, a poisonous red cloud enveloped and incinerated St. Pierre. The cloud was so dense that very little sunlight was transmitted through it - at noon it looked like midnight. This is the same kind of eruption that buried Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.

As a footnote to the eruption of Pelee 100 years ago today, it's reported that only one person survived Pelee's fury; a prisoner in an underground cell.

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