Congratulations to Jonet “Zola” Greene for not only finding me at Paricutin, but for picking up three bonus points for identifying San Juan Parangaricutiro Church in the third postcard’s photo. Of all the volcanoes I’ve loved before, this one might have been the one that inspired me first and foremost. The story of its birth became the genesis of many of my nine-year-old self’s dreams.
Volcán de Parícutin is a dormant scoria cone that lies in the Trans Mexican Volcanic Belt about 200 miles (322 km) west of Mexico City. It belongs to a very exclusive club of young volcanoes whose births were actually witnessed and recorded in recent historic times. It, like Eldfell, was heralded by a few weeks of earthquakes which increased in number and intensity up until the eruption; and then it manifested itself as a fissure eruption which quickly grew into a volcanic cone.
But unlike Eldfell, this volcano’s birth was witnessed right from the onset. It happened on the afternoon of 20 February 1943 in the cornfield of farmer Dionisio Pulido, who was busy with his wife clearing brush to prepare for spring planting. Here is what he saw in his own words.
” “At 4 p.m., 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 meter. 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 meters 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 sulfur.”
“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.”
Within a day, the strombolian activity from the fissure had constructed a cone 50 meters high, and in a week that cone had doubled in height. In March, the activity became more intense and vulcanian in nature, producing an eruptive column that reached several kilometres into the air.
then in June the volcano, which had then been primarily spewing smoke and ash, began producing lava flows, one of which forced the evacuation of the village of Paricutin (from which the volcano took its name) on 13 June. As the summer wore on, a lateral vent formed in the north side of the cone and sent lava flowing down toward the village of San Juan Parangaricutiro. By August, that village was completely buried save for the ruins of the main church. All the while, ejecta continued to fall across the valley around the new volcano.
By the end of the year, the cone had grown to 330 metres in height and ash had been observed to fall as far away as Mexico City. During the following year, lava advanced primarily to the west and northwest. Over the next seven years, activity slowed and became more sporadic. The volcano’s last activity, consisting of a series of eruptions and a 3 km column of ash, occurred during January and February of 1952. At its highest, Paricutin stood 424 metres above the land from which it originally sprang.
During Paricutin’s nine-years of activity, geologists seized the opportunity to study a volcano’s complete life cycle, taking samples, making measurements, and recording the activity with still and motion photography…despite the rest of the world’s attention being focused on the end of World War II.
Today the volcano as well as the buried village of San Juan Parangaricutiro is a tourist attraction. The volcano’s summit can be reached on foot and it is possible to walk around the entire rim of the crater. Although the volcano is no longer active, the region is still seismically active and the interior of the volcano remains hot enough to cause the emission of steam after periods of rainfall.
Only two (or possibly three) people are known to have died because of the volcano, though indirectly, due to pyroclastic lightning. The slow movement of the lava allowed plenty of time to successfully evacuate the villages in its path.
It is said that before Dionisio Pulido left his farm for the last time, he placed a sign on his property that said “”This volcano is owned and operated by Dionisio Pulido.”