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Parícutin: “Save Me From the Dangers in Which I am About to Die”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Dionisio Pulido suddenly found himself having a very bad day.

A few moments before, he had been living an ordinary life, clearing brush from his land while his helper plowed and his wife and son watched the sheep graze. Aside from the earthquakes that had driven the presidente of San Juan Parangaricutiro to send a delegation to a larger town in search of answers, and the fact that a pit on his land had just split open, life was fine.

Now, he was feeling thunder. That’s the word he used, “felt.” We usually think of thunder as a thing you hear: when you feel it, when it’s that loud and insistent, the sensation travels right through you, setting your organs dancing and your teeth on edge. We can extrapolate from what Sr. Pulido said that his teeth and organs were very likely the same. The trees seemed to feel it, too: he and his wife saw them trembling and swaying.

The new volcano broke forth in the valley of Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru, which lay between Cerro de Jaratiro (left), Cerro de Cainiro (far center), and Cerro de Canicjuata (right). Paricutin village lies near the foot of Cerro de Canicjuata. The fields of San Juan Parangaricutiro are in the foreground. Taken from Ticuiro, near San Juan Parangaricutiro, at 5:30 P.M. Paricutin Volcano. Michoacan, Mexico. February 20, 1943. Published as plate 16-B in U. S. Geological Survey. Bulletin 965-D. 1956.

The new volcano broke forth in the valley of Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru, which lay between Cerro de Jaratiro (left), Cerro de Cainiro (far center), and Cerro de Canicjuata (right). Paricutin village lies near the foot of Cerro de Canicjuata. The fields of San Juan Parangaricutiro are in the foreground. Taken from Ticuiro, near San Juan Parangaricutiro, at 5:30 P.M. Paricutin Volcano. Michoacan, Mexico. February 20, 1943. Published as plate 16-B in U. S. Geological Survey. Bulletin 965-D. 1956. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Sr. Pulido was going to speak to his wife about this remarkable turn of events, but when he turned toward her, he saw the ground in the fractured pit, swollen two meters or more (over 6 feet). A fine gray smoke rose from a crack in the pit. It increased in intensity, with a loud whistling, hissing sound that wouldn’t stop, and the field began to stink of sulfur. Across the pit, about 100 meters (328 feet) away, Paula Pulido saw the smoke, smelled the sulfur, heard what she described as a “whistle like water falling on live coals or hot embers.” She watched pine trees 30 meters (98 feet) from the pit catch fire. She called out to her husband as the ground rose like “confused cake” above the fracture, then disappeared, seeming to swallow itself.

It’s about this time that Sr. Pulido’s nerve broke, for which one can’t blame him. He couldn’t get to his wife, but he did try to save his oxen, terrified fingers fumbling at their yoke. He cried out to the local saint. “Save me from the dangers in which I am about to die,” he pleaded, and found a measure of calm. He ran to save his family, his workers, but couldn’t find them: turned back to save his oxen, but they were gone. So was the water from the spring near the fissure, gone suddenly away in the noise and the sulfur-scented smoke as the ground consumed itself.

Paricutin volcano at the time of its initial outbreak, showing the positions of the various features and eyewitnesses as seen by Sra. Aurora Cuara.

Paricutin volcano at the time of its initial outbreak, showing the positions of the various features and eyewitnesses as seen by Sra. Aurora Cuara. 1. Direction of Toral's plowed furrow. 2. Position of Dionisio Pulido. 3. Position of Demetrio Toral. 4. Vent of the volcano. 5. Depression along the fissure. 6. The original fissure. 7. Piedra del Sol. 8. Path taken by Aurora Cuara. 9. A secondary crack of fissure. 10. Position of Paula Rangel de Pulido. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

 

From the path to San Nicolás, Aurora Cuara watched a fissure split the earth, and a wall of earth rise a meter (just over three feet) high. She watched the fine gray dust rise like smoke, and it frightened her, but she climbed the boundary rock for a better view anyway. She was only fifty meters (164 feet) from the fissue, and saw it throwing sparks and dust. She also saw Sr. Pulido, fresh out of family, companions and oxen, mount his horse and flee. She followed suit.

This is the thing about the birth of a cinder cone: it’s somewhat violent and definitely terrifying, but eminently survivable. Sr. Pulido found family, companions and oxen all safe and well in the village of Parícutin when he arrived. And when he told his remarkable story to the chief of the Parícutin subdivision and the presidente of San Juan Parangaricutiro, a delegation formed, full of people willing to investigate this new and interesting (never mind explosive) thing. They headed off to Sr. Pulido’s field, arriving around six in the evening, a mere hour and a half after the earth had begun its pyroclastic display. Luis Ortíz Solorio observed the fissure, and saw it had developed a hole about a half-meter (almost 2 feet) in diameter, from which “smoke” rose and rocks were tossed to modest heights.

Paricutin volcano at 6 p. m., February 20, 1943, showing the appearance of the vent and its surroundings as seen by Juan Anguiano E.

Paricutin volcano at 6 p. m., February 20, 1943, showing the appearance of the vent and its surroundings as seen by Juan Anguiano E. 1. Small mounds of gray ash. 2. The fissure that opened. 3. The pit from which vapors issued. 4. The fractnre that opened while Anguiano and Martinez watched the vent. 5. Anguiano and Martinez. 6. Other members of the Parangaricutiro party. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

He decided he’d gone quite close enough.

Juan Anguiano Espinosa and Jesús Martínez made a closer approach, as close as they could manage. The ground, they said, was “jumping up and down” rather than swaying like one would expect with an earthquake. The scent of sulfur choked them. Dust and sparks flew; small stones hurtled five meters (16 feet) into the air, while in the vent, sand “boiled,” looking, they thought, much like sand churned by the water of a rising spring. And the sounds they heard reminded them of water, too: water boiling in a large jug, like floodwater dragging boulders in a stream. The fissure formed a trench, and the ground had slumped around the hole in a strip twenty meters (almost 66 feet) long and twelve meters (39 feet) wide. Along that slump, the ground had cracked, and along that crack, half-meter (around 3 feet) piles of the fine gray dust had accumulated. Anguiano, a man with the instincts of a geologist, scooped up a sample with his handkerchief. He found it warm, and the two small stones he also collected were hot. To him goes the honor of the first samples taken from Parícutin.

He almost didn’t make it back to town with them. From his safe distance, Solorio saw the earth fracture about six meters (almost 20 feet) from the vent. He shouted for Anguiano and Martínez, who jumped back just in time. The ground fell in, the vent widened to two meters (6.5 feet) and the column of smoke grew as the vent spat little stones “like incandescent marbles and oranges.”

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder.

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder. Image and caption courtesy R.E. Wilcox, U.S. Geological Survey via Wikimedia Commons.

They hurried back to San Juan Parangaricutiro to report. After hearing their description, the priest consulted the church’s book on Vesuvius. After reading up on that volcano, they were all pretty certain they’d just seen one. And they could still see it, even from there: the column of smoke was now visible, and at ten that night, Aurora Cuara stood and watched while the baby volcano hurled incandescent bombs, which she could see through the screen of trees between town and fissure. A little over an hour later, Parícutin began roaring. It hurled its stones vigorously; lightning began dancing through its eruption cloud. This was a sight the townfolk would grow quite used to in the coming years, before Parícutin forced them to leisurely flee.

When Aurora Cuara passed near the newborn volcano on her way back from checking on her husband in San Nicolás the next day, she found a little round hill of stones and sand where the hole had been. Rocks hurtled up from its center, some quite large, and some exploding in mid-air. And she saw a fire slowly flowing from its base. Later, she would learn this fire was lava, the beginning of the flows that would destroy Sr. Pulido’s field and the surrounding towns, and change all of their lives forever.

Paricutin, 1943, not long after its birthday. The nine-year life of this little cinder cone was closely studied by geologists, and has allowed us to study the life span of a cinder cone from birth to extinction. Image credit K. Segerstrom, U.S. Geological Survey

Paricutin, 1943, not long after its birthday. The nine-year life of this little cinder cone was closely studied by geologists, and has allowed us to study the life span of a cinder cone from birth to extinction. Image credit K. Segerstrom, U.S. Geological Survey

 

Previous: Parícutin: “Here Is Something New and Strange

References:

Foshag, William F. and Gonzalez, Jenaro R. (1956): Birth and Development of Paricutin Volcano Mexico. US Geological Survey Bulletin 965-D.

Luhr, James F. and Simkin, Tom, Editors (1993): Paricutín: The Volcano Born in a Mexican Cornfield. Phoenix, Arizona: Geoscience Press.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Malachite 1:17 pm 02/28/2013

    Great post, thanks!

    Link to this
  2. 2. khearn 8:13 pm 02/28/2013

    I’m glad you’re doing this series on Paricutin. I remember reading about it when I was much younger, but of course it was very devoid of detail. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Link to this

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