Eighty Years Ago Today, A Volcano was Born…

On February 20, 1943, in the central Mexican region of Michoacán, a volcano was born in a cornfield.

When you visit the volcano today, it looks like most other hills—sitting quietly, acting as if it had always been there. Look closer, and you can see it’s streaked brown and black, while the rest of the hills behind it are green, lush with the forests and fields of central Mexico. As you view it from the village of Angahuan, the volcano’s nearest town, there is a vast field of black rocks to its right, with what look like islands of forest in between.

All mountains have origin stories—the Indian subcontinent moving into Asia to push up the Himalayas, the Matterhorn carved by thick glaciers like it was a piece of wood being sanded down—but volcanoes are unique in our geologic world for their compressed time periods. No longer do we have to pretend like we understand Earth’s history in millions or billions of years; one reason I love volcanoes is that they are landscapes on a human timescale.

The new volcano that would be named Paricutín is considered the youngest mountain in the world and is the only volcano we know of where people have recorded its entire lifecycle, from birth to death.

Volcán Paricutín, May 2018

Back in 1943, the only hint that something was a bit different in this cornfield, which owned by Dionisio and Paula Pulido, was that there had always been a small hole in the field. But besides warning children to stay away from the area so they didn’t fall into it, no one paid the hole much mind.

Then sometime around 4:00 in the afternoon of February 20, Dionisio Pulido was plowing his field when the ground began to rise, emit what looked like smoke, and hiss loudly.

Dionisio recalled that:

In the afternoon I joined my wife and son, who were watching the sheep, and inquired if anything new had occurred, since for two weeks we had felt strong tremors in the region. Paula replied, yes, that she had heard noise and thunder underground. Scarcely had she finished speaking when I, myself, heard a noise, like thunder during a rainstorm, but I could not explain it, for the sky above was clear and the day was so peaceful, as it is in February… Then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself two or two and a half meters high, and a kind of smoke or fine dust, gray, like ashes, began to rise up in a portion of the crack that I had not previously seen near the resumídero [the hole]. 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 tried to help unyoke one of the ox teams. I hardly knew what to do, so stunned was I before this, not knowing what to think or what to do and not able to find my wife or my son or my animals.

Paula Pulido also recounted what she remembered of that day to scientists who came to study the new volcano:

I heard a kind of loud whistle, like the noise of water falling on live coals or hot embers. This noise was completely distinct from the underground noise I had been hearing, and the trees swayed strongly and continuously. I was about 100 meters from the place where these things took place, when I saw, issuing from a crevice that had formed, a little cloud of gray and I smelled an odor like sulfur, and I noticed that some pines about 30 meters from the orifice began to burn. I called to my husband. Then the ground rose in the form of a confused cake above the open fissure and then disappeared, but I cannot say whether it blew out or fell back—I believe it swallowed itself. I was sure the earth was on fire and it would consume itself. From the fissure arose a gray column of smoke, without force, depositing a fine gray dust.

That day in the cornfield, the volcano that would be named Paricutín was born. Ash and rock started to be thrown up into the air and pile around the hole and BAM! Instant volcano. Twenty-four hours later, the volcano was almost 200 feet (60 meters) high.

One of the first photographs of the Parícutin eruption, taken approximately an hour and a half after the eruption began on February 20, 1943. Photo by Luis Mora-Garcia.
Paricutín on Day 5, February 25, 1943, with its first lava flow. Photo by Instituto de Geología.

After a few months of fountaining lava, Paricutín reached its more volatile teenage phase and ash from its violent eruptions fell so thick that villagers had to clear their roofs every few days to prevent their collapse. It was so dark, lamps had to be lit twenty-four hours a day. Lava flows headed to the villages of Paricutín and San Juan Parangaricutiro and people evacuated, though the lava was slow enough that they sometimes waited until the day before to see if the lava would actually head towards their land. Eventually, the lava, cinders, and ash built the volcano up to the 1,353 foot tall hill it is today.

Geologists now consider the volcano, quiet since 1952, unlikely to erupt ever again, though the whole area is still very much active; the vast Michoacán-Guanajuato volcanic field contains over 1,400 separate volcanic vents.

The summit crater of Paricutín, May 2018.

These days, Angahuan is a town of around 6,000, whose residents are still mostly Purépecha, the indigenous group (called the Tarascans by the Spanish) who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Purépecha Empire was a rival to the Aztecs, and the Purépecha were the only people in the region never conquered by the Aztecs.

It was an overcast day when I arrived in Angahuan in May of 2018, and large brown puddles sat in the cobblestone and dirt streets. Women with long braids slung over their shoulders and wrapped up in woven shawls hurried to try and avoid the rain drops. Rusty cars bumped through the streets and horses stood tied up to gates or to the tailgates of pickup trucks.

I explored the lava fields and Paricutín’s steep cone on foot and by horseback with a Purépecha guide named Luis and two other tourists, she Mexican, he Polish. By horseback, the base of Paracutín is about a three hour ride, looping away from the village to avoid the crusty, uneven surface of the lava fields, then it was a steep 10 minute walk up to the summit. The crater, with its cutaway layers of ash, hardened lava, and cinders, bore a deep resemblance to other craters and volcanoes I’ve visited, the younger cousin of Vesuvius, the sibling to Sunset Crater in Arizona and the cinder cones that dot the crater floor of Haleakalā.

The lava flows from Paracutín are still mostly bare and black and it was obvious to see the lines of where the volcano had touched and where the lava had skirted around hills. It was hard to comprehend that all the thick fields rock that filled the valley—around nine square miles of it—had been shot out and flowed from the small vent that was the summit of Paracutín.

The lava flows stretching out from Paricutín

Two villages were covered by Paricutín’s lava over the course of its eruption and between them, only one building survives, the Templo de San Juan Parangaricutiro Viejo. The church was the only thing breaking up the jumble of black and brown lava that stretched three miles to Paricutín.

I hiked up the black, blocky rocks on a hint of a path to get close to the church with its one side wall, one surviving tower, and altar that was still decorated by the local community. It was surreal to be surrounded by this field of lava that I knew was churning and moving in 1944 and have this one building still standing. Underneath that basalt was the church’s plaza, the town’s cemetery, and village streets.

Templo de San Juan Parangaricutiro Viejo, May 2018

I looped around and clambered over the large jagged rocks and kept looking back at the church, which was lit up by the sun despite dark threatening clouds behind it. As I walked further, soon all I could see was the bell tower, then eventually that too was swallowed up by the lava field as I dropped lower.

The basalt may have started as a barren stretch of rock back when the lava cooled, but today scaly lichens covers much of the rock, moss grows in the cooler areas on the undulating lava field, and bushes and trees were rising out cracks in the basalt. Lizards and barn swallows already called this land home, the latter flitting in and out of the bell tower and twittering in the afternoon sun.

Eighty years later, the volcano hasn’t stopped new cornfields from thriving. In fact, volcanic soils are some of the richest in the world, and the Uruapan region of Michoacán is known specifically for a variety of elote azul, blue corn. I sat and had lunch from a restaurant set up under a wooden lean-to at the edge of the lava flow, joining a Mexican family who had rode in on a Jeep tour. The ruins and volcano have brought in a trickle of tourists like us for almost as long as the volcano has been in existence. There in 2018, I enjoyed a feast of quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms, avocado, and peppers but the blue tortillas were the star of the meal: flaky and slightly sweet, steaming as the young cook grabbed them from her griddle. Corn and volcanoes, here always going hand-in-hand.

Fresh blue corn tortilla, made from elote azul.

Sometimes, when looking at fresh volcanic rock it appears barren. It can seem like the end of the Earth has just occurred.

But a birth is always, also, a beginning.

More historic images and information about can be found at the Global Volcanism Program. Header photo courtesy of LakeParzcuaro.org.


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