The Volcano in a Cornfield
20, 1943, Dionisio Pulido was working in his cornfield just
outside the Tarascan Indian village of Paricutin, Mexico. He
and his family had spent the day getting ready for the spring
sowing by clearing the field of shrubbery, putting it in piles
and burning it. At about four in the afternoon, Pulido left
his wife and moved to a different field so that he could set
fire to a new pile. When he arrived he noticed something strange:
on top of a small hill in the field a huge crack, over six feet
wide and 150 feet (47m) long, had appeared in the earth. At
first Pulido wasn't concerned, the crack only looked like it
was about a foot deep. As he was lighting the pile of branches,
however, the sound of thunder rumbled across the field and the
ground began to shake. Pulido turned to look back towards the
crack and saw that the ground there had swelled up over six
feet in height and fine gray ashes were pouring out of the hole.
"Immediately more smoke began to rise with a hiss or whistle,
loud and continuous; and there was a smell of sulfur," Pulido
later told witnesses.
1,353 foot (424m) above the valley. 9,186 feet ( 2,800m)
above sea level.
Lava field covers 10 square miles (25 square km).
1943 to 1952.
of Volcano: A scoria (or cinder) cone.
Farmer Dionisio Pulido saw it emerge out of his cornfield
on February 20th , 1943, at around 4 PM.
Near the destroyed town of Paricutin in the state of
The youngest volcano in the Western Hemisphere.
became terrified by these events and tried to find his wife
and sons, but couldn't. He tried to rescue his team of oxen,
but they had disappeared also. Despairing that he would never
see any of them again, he jumped on his horse and rode to town.
There he was happy to find his family and friends waiting for
him. "They were afraid that I was dead and that they would never
see me again," said Pulido.
had appeared in Pulido's cornfield was a new volcano. The incident
at Paricutin would be the first time scientists would be able
to observe a volcano from birth through extinction. What they
would learn through these events would help them understand
the powerful forces deep in the earth that shape the surface
of our planet.
town of Paricutin was located in the heart of the Trans-Mexican
Volcanic Belt, an area running 600 miles (900 km) east to west
across central-southern Mexico. The belt includes the Sierra
Nevada mountain range (which is an extinct set of volcanoes)
along with thousands of smaller cinder cones and volcanic vents.
Volcanic activity over millions of years has created a high
plateau of rock deposits 6,000 feet (1.8km) deep. The soil,
because of its volcanic origin, contains a wide variety of common
elements which are easy for plants to absorb. This makes the
land very fertile. The soil, combined with moist winds from
the Pacific Ocean, makes the belt the most productive farmland
volcano as it appeared in 1943 during the eruption.
though the belt had a long history of volcanic activity, the
residents of Paricutin thought they had been hearing the sound
of normal thunder in the weeks that preceded the eruption, though
they were puzzled by the lack of storm clouds in the sky. What
was producing the sound, however, was the movement of magma
deep inside the earth. Soon, however, residents also began feeling
tremors in the ground, hinting of what was to come.
its startling appearance, the volcano grew rapidly. That first
evening Celedonio Gutierrez, who witnessed the eruption from
the town remembered, "…when night began to fall, we heard noises
like the surge of the sea, and red flames of fire rose into
the darkened sky, some rising 800 meters or more into the air,
that burst like golden marigolds, and a rain like artificial
fire fell to the ground."
volcano grew by ejecting both lapilli-sized fragments, which
range from the diameter of a pea to that of a walnut, along
with larger "bomb" fragments. The bombs are often still molten
when they are thrown from the volcano and produce bright parabolic
streaks in the sky as they fall to the ground. Because they
are still soft while flying through the air, the bombs form
into a streamlined, aerodynamic shape.
the bombs and lapilli build up around the base of the eruption,
they form a steep cone shape often referred to as a scoria,
or cinder cone. In a little more than 24 hours the cone of the
Paricutin volcano had grown to over 165 feet (50m). Within six
more days it had doubled that height.
March, about a month after the eruption started, William F.
Foshag, a curator of minerals at the U.S. National Museum, arrived.
Together with his Mexican counterpart, Dr. Jenaro González-Reyna,
Foshag would spend the next several years documenting the life
cycle of the volcano. Froshag was responsible for gathering
many of the samples and photographs from Paricutin that are
still used by scientists today while doing volcanic research.
remains of the San Juan Parangaricutiro Church which still
rise above the rugged lava feild. (Photo
sudden appearance of a new volcano caught the attention of the
world. Newspaper and magazine reporters rushed to the area.
Life Magazine featured a picture of Foshag with the volcano
in the background. Pilots of airliners would point out the cone
to fascinated passengers as they flew by it. Hollywood even
got into the act by shooting a film, Captain from Castile,
in the region and using the volcano as a dramatic backdrop.
the residents of Paricutin might have been happy about the work
they got as extras in the movie, it was hardly compensation
for the damage the volcano did. In June of 1943 lava started
flowing toward the village which had to be evacuated. A few
months later the lava also rolled over the nearby town of San
Juan. Eventually all that was left of the settlements was the
church towers which rose above a sea of lava. A frozen, rugged
sea that by the time it has stopped flowing covered 10 square
come in three basic types (though sometimes scientists include
supervolcanoes as a fourth
type). Shield volcanoes are broad, dome-like structures
that can grow to over 60 miles (100km) wide. Instead of violent,
explosive eruptions they are characterized by steady lava fountains
and flows that broaden the size of the volcano. The volcanoes
of Hawaii fall into this category.
the volcano is silent. Visitors can experience Paricutin
by traveling to the nearby town of Angahuan that survived
the eruption. This location is known as the "Balcony of
the Paricutin" and from its location on top of a mountain
both the extinct volcano and its surrounding lava fields
can be seen along with the ruins of the church of San
Juan. The bell tower of the church still stands like a
lonely sentinel above the frozen lava part of one of the
wonders of the natural world.
are the most violent and dangerous of volcanoes. Their slopes
rise slowly at first and then become very steep with a narrow
vent at the top. Stratovolcanoes often have explosive eruptions,
and then go dormant for decades or even centuries. Mt. St. Helens,
in the United States Pacific Northwest, is a Stratovolcano.
final type of volcano is one like Paricutin, a scoria cone.
This type of volcano can appear suddenly and build a large conic-shaped
mountain with steep slopes. They often erupt for less than a
decade, then go dormant and never erupt again. The type of eruptions
from such cones are known as Strombolian eruptions because
the lava flows out of a single vent that resembles those at
the Stromboli volcano in Italy.
of the Volcano
was very active in its first year, growing to four-fifths of
its final 1,353 foot (424m) height. During the peak of its activity
that year, ashes from the volcano drifted as far as 200 miles
to the east and fell on Mexico City. With each following year,
however, the volcano became less active until, after a final
spectacular spasm, it finally went dormant in 1952. By then
the damage had been done, however. In addition to the lava fields,
there were also 20 square miles of volcanic sand deposited around
Paricutin and almost all vegetation had been destroyed within
a few miles of the crater. Hundreds of people had been resettled
to other locations and had to find new livelihoods.
leaving his home for the final time Pulido put a sign on his
land. It read "This volcano is owned and operated by Dionisio
Pulido." Paricutin might have taken his cornfield, but the farmer
still retained his sense of humor.
quiet volcano as it appears today. (Licensed
under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license,
photo by Karla Yannín Alcázar Quintero)
Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.