It is now more than 20 years since Montserrat’s long-dormant volcano had a dramatic return to life. The action began in 1995 and reached a crescendo in 1997, when 19 people lost their lives. Plymouth, the island’s capital, ended up buried in more than 12m (40ft) of mud. Since then an exclusion zone has been imposed over the southern two-thirds of the Caribbean island and the population has dwindled from 12,500 to just 4,500. Sporadic smaller eruptions have occurred in the intervening years, but for the past eight years the volcano has been completely silent, and locals are impatient to return to their homes. So is it safe?
Prof Jurgen Neuberg, a volcanologist at the University of Leeds, is chairman of the scientific advisory committee to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, tasked with assessing the risk of the volcano. Using GPS data provided by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and numerical modelling, Neuberg and his colleagues can see that around one cubic metre (35 cubic ft) of fresh magma is accumulating under the island every seven seconds. “Except for the gas plume there is nothing visible on the surface, but the instruments show us clearly that the deformation is ongoing and the entire island is still inflating,” says Neuberg. Sadly, Montserratians must continue to wait.