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Mexico's Colima - An Active Volcano

Centuries-old legends say that more than 3,000 years ago the God of fire looked down from the volcano, Nevado de Colima, to advise and give solace to the inhabitants of this region. His hot-tempered younger brother, who resided in the Volcan de Colima, instilled fear in the hearts of his worshippers and would severely punish those who didn't please him. Driving north from Manzanillo, tourists will always remember their first view of the majestic mountains of Colima. The inactive, snow-capped Nevado de Colima, towering above 14,200 feet and its active smoke- and lava-spewing partner, Volcan de Colima, at more than 13,000 feet overlook a lush, forested valley and tranquil lagoon.

The Colima volcano is the most active volcano in Mexico, having erupted violently several times over the last 450 years. About 4,000 years ago it produced a cataclysmic avalanche much larger than that of Mount St. Helen's. Written accounts of the volcano's eruptions date from shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

One of the earliest recordings of an eruption was in 1576, followed by another in 1590. From 1611-13 there was a period of violent pyroclastic explosions (reminiscent of Pierce Brosnan's "Dante's Peak") with strong earthquakes.

There was peace at last for 138 years, but in 1743 a strong earthquake was felt in Ciudad Guzman in the neighboring state of Jalisco. In 1749, another eruption occurred; in 1770 an enormous outpouring of ash; in 1795 an eruption of glowing cinders, and finally in 1806, an earthquake that killed an estimated 2,000 people in Ciudad Guzman. Sporadic eruptions continued through 1818; then, for 51 years, the volcano showed no eruptive activity.

In 1869 an unusual occurrence happened. A small parasitic cone, now called El Volcancito, formed one-kilometer northeast of the main crater. Continued weak activity interspersed with some fairly potent explosions continued through 1913, when a major eruption occurred, characterized by heavy ash flows and the formation of a summit crater measuring more than 900 feet in depth.

Once again, the pressure was relieved, and the volcano stood essentially dormant for 48 years. In 1941, the city of Colima was on the receiving end of a strong earthquake, resulting in massive destruction. Much of the city's historical buildings had to be rebuilt after this quake.

Minor eruptions continued 1961 through 1981, with a new dome formed in the eastern part of the crater. In 1985, a magnitude 8 earthquake opened new cracks, followed by an ash eruption in 1986, and an explosion and avalanche from the dome. New vents opened, releasing some of the built-up pressure, but in 1991 and 1994 it erupted again.

The current status on the volcano is that it is very active. In November of 1998, 250 people were evacuated from villages surrounding Colima due to warnings that an eruption was likely to occur. Thousands of small tremors have been recorded at the volcano. A plume was seen above the volcano on November 18. Planes surveying the volcano recorded temperatures of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit inside the crater. Lava was also reported to have risen high within the crater.

On February 11 two years ago, a major eruption of the volcano forced the evacuation of 118 people from the town of San Marcos. Vulcanologists detected sulfur dioxide in the volcano's emissions. An eruption plume reached a height of 3 miles. There were no injuries or property damage reported, but grass fires were started from a small lava flow.

On February 14, further explosions and small earthquakes forced the evacuation of about 350 more individuals from the northern flanks of the volcano. Small pyroclastic flows have accompanied many of these explosions.

Activity at the volcano increased until on February 22, four eruptive explosions occurred at the summit. There was also an increase in seismic activity.

Things quieted down until May 11, when a strong explosion occurred at the summit dome. The shockwave could be felt in the city of Colima, and indeed, this author was in the city at the time. One could hear a rumbling noise, like thunder, and a blast, which sounded like dynamite. Since the city of Colima was doing a lot of roadwork, this author assumed that was the cause of the sound. The explosion triggered two small pyroclastic flows on the northwest side. The ballistic projectiles reached distances of almost 8 miles, causing small fires on the southern, western, and southwestern parts of the volcano, but otherwise, no other damage.

Since June 1, the volcano has been experiencing explosive activity. Six explosions occurred on June 2. On June 5 there were 4 explosive events. On the 7th, 9 explosions occurred, and still another on the 8th. On the 16th, and then again on the 18th, more explosions occurred.

Activity is continuing throughout the month of July. How dangerous is all this activity? With modern-day seismographic equipment, numerous volcanologists and seismologists studying the volcano and recording various readings, with Mexico's Civil Protection agency ready to assist with evacuations should it be necessary--almost none. The volcano is an hour and a half away from Manzanillo (the base is 90 miles away), and 45 minutes from the city of Colima. The evacuated villages are on the northern slope, at the base of the volcano, and Manzanillo is to the south. Because it is currently the most active volcano in Mexico, people are coming from all over the world to see it and study it. Tourists, when deciding where to go on their vacation, should make sure to visit one of Mother Nature's most amazing natural wonders.