La Soufriere is a volcano situated on the St-Vincent island in the Caribbean. It erupted violently on multiple occasions and has forced the evacuation of over 16 000 residents. Currently, the island is in a state of emergency with water supplies cut and frequent power outages. As of now, no one has died due to this event, but as Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told NBC News, “it’s a huge operation that is facing us,” as thousands of people are residing in emergency shelters.
Retired local police officer Paul Smart told the Associated Press that there is “no water, lots of dust in our homes. We thank God we are alive, but we need more help at this moment.” In addition to this local crisis that needs to be taken care of, this eruption may also be creating problems outside of St-Vincent’s borders.
The usual paradise-like landscape that is St-Vincent is now covered in a greyish smog of ash due to the perpetual ashfall that an eruption of this magnitude tends to create. This ashfall will eventually be carried by winds and travel to nearby islands. The National Emergency Management Organization of St-Vincent and the Grenadines (NEMO) said “be careful all. We are covered in ash and strong sulphur scents pervade the air. We ask that you take the necessary precautions to remain safe and healthy.” The authorities in St-Lucia and Barbados have warned their civilians to expect very poor air quality. Ash and gases from the eruptions will likely affect most Caribbean islands, potentially spreading to the Americas.
However, like previous large-scale eruptions, finer particles tend to travel greater distances, impacting the environment globally. La Soufriere released a considerable amount of Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) into the air. Satellite imagery made by Sentinel-5 shows that SO2 has spread eastward, reaching India almost 14 000 km away from the volcano.
Depending on regional air movements, some places are more affected than others when it comes to SO2 exposure. According to the satellite imagery, eastern Africa is currently the most affected area, more than St-Vincent, in terms of SO2 deposition.
The best way to identify this gas is through its pungent smell. But, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), another way to identify SO2 is if you feel irritation on your skin, eyes, nose and throat. The USGS reports that “during very large eruptions, SO2 can be injected to altitudes of greater than 10km into the stratosphere.” Although unhealthy to humans, SO2 is very healthy to the planet. USGS says that in the stratosphere, “SO2 is converted to sulfate aerosols which reflect sunlight and therefore have a cooling effect on the Earth’s climate.”
Another issue was brought up concerning the ash and SO2 spread and its relationship with Covid-19. Such exposure to these particles may weaken the respiratory systems of many St-Vincent residents and worsen the Covid-19 symptoms. A local resident told BBC that the “hospital has been transformed to become the Respiratory Hospital, and it is treating Covid patients.” Meaning that people who are facing symptoms of ash exposure like excessive coughing “would be on the wards with Covid patients,” possibly creating a disastrous scenario.
All in all, the global SO2 spread is a normal side-effect of large eruptions, but is still a concerning factor that needs to be weighed in. For the local Caribbean islands, extra precautions should be put in place to circumvent exposition to ash and SO2, especially in a Covid-19-plagued world. For St-Vincent, it is a matter of remaining alert for other eruptions and staying active in keeping people safe.