Paricutin: The World’s Youngest Volcano

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Podcast Transcript

There are estimated to be over 1,300 active volcanoes in the world today. 

Almost all of them have one thing in common, they were around well before there were humans to record their creation. In fact, their creation might have taken many thousands of years. 

However, there is one volcano were know quite a bit about because we were around when it was born, and we have everything on film.

Learn more about Paricutin, the volcano that we witnessed being born, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Volcanoes are things that happen very slowly and then sometimes all at once. 

For example, Mona Loa on the big island of Hawaii is estimated to have erupted for about 700,000 years. It may go decades with absolutely nothing happening on the surface, and then suddenly, it will engage in spasms of activity.

When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, all the volcanoes were already there. They learned to live with them, but they weren’t there to witness their creation. 

The same story is true all over the world. Pick your volcano, and it was there before people were around to document its creation. 

This is what makes the subject of this episode so interesting. Paricutin is the world’s youngest volcano. 

The story starts in Mexico in 1943, near the village of Paricutin, in the state of Michoacán, located about 320 kilometers west of Mexico City.

In particular, it starts with a single farmer by the name of Dionisio Pulido. 

Pulido grew corn, and on his land, there was a hole in the ground. It wasn’t that big, and he never thought much of it. It was about 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep, or 5 meters wide and 1 meter deep. 

Pulido sort of just assumed that it might have been the entrance to an old abandoned Spanish mine. He sort of used the hole as a garbage dump. He would often throw dirt or brush into it, or he might store the yoke for his ox in the hole rather than bring it in from the field.

There was something odd about the hole, however. Children from the village would often play around it and say that it would give off heat, make funny sounds, and sometimes smell really bad.

The other odd thing that Pulido noticed after a while was that despite throwing stuff into the hole, it never seemed to fill up. 

The day the mystery hole revealed itself was on February 20, 1943. It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon when he and his family were clearing brush in preparation for the spring corn planting. 

In the weeks leading up to February 20th, there had been rumblings that had been heard all around the village. No one was really sure where the noises came from because there were no thunderclouds in the sky. 

On February 20th, the noises went silent. 

When Pulido went to the field, he noticed that the hole had changed….dramatically. 

It was no longer a short, shallow hole in the ground. Now it was 150 feet long and 6 feet deep. 

When later asked about what he found, he was reported to have said, “Here is something new and strange…”

Given his rather understated reaction to the new giant hole in his field, he, his wife, and his son went to work clearing brush. 

However, things kept happening. He said, “in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself, and a kind of smoke or fine dust, gray like ashes, began to rise up in a portion of the crack…with a hiss or whistle, loud and continuous; and there was a smell of sulfur.”

The bottom of the hole began heaving up and down. Smoke and ash began to emanate from the hole, and a nearby grove of pine trees burst into flame. 

As smoke continued to billow out of the hole, the Pulido family was split up and couldn’t see each other. His wife Paula and his son, not able to find Dionisio, headed to the village. 

Dionisio, also unable to find his wife, son, or ox, mounted his horse and also went to the village in hopes that they would be there, and they all were.

Later that night, the village priest organized a party to go out to examine the rupture and saw that glowing rocks were being spat out of the ground. 

The volcanic activity was so heavy that most of the people in the village fled for their safety…..which was a good idea.

Just 24 hours after the activity began, where was previously a cornfield, there was now a cinder cone 50 meters or 150 feet high. By the end of the first week, it was around 150 meters or 500 feet high. 

By this time, the entire valley that the village was in was covered in ash and everyone who hadn’t evacuated now had no choice but to leave. 

The volcano also began to attract a crowd who came to see the glowing bombs being thrown out, especially at night.

The volcano, now dubbed the Paricutin volcano after the village, kept ejecting material and growing. 

By June, the cinder cone had reached a height of 200 meters, and in October, it was 365 meters.

On October 18th, the volcano entered a new phase where lateral vents began to open, which began to threaten the nearby town of San Juan Parangaricutiro.

The citizens of San Juan Parangaricutiro, with a few weeks lead time, managed to move most of their possessions, including the contents of the local church.

San Juan Parangaricutiro and Paricutin were both eventually covered in lava and ash. 

The volcano kept erupting, and it captured the attention of the world. 

Magazines and newsreel crews came to see the volcano to report about it. PanAm Airlines rerouted their flights to Mexico City so that passengers could see the volcano from the air.

In 1947, Hollywood shot a film on location called The Captain from Castile, which used the smoking volcano as a backdrop and hired locals as extras.

Artists from Mexico flooded to the region to paint the volcano, and it became a common theme for a generation of Mexican artists.

The volcano continued to erupt for nine years and didn’t come to rest until 1952. 

This was a huge deal for vulcanologists and geologists because it was the first and only time they could observe a volcano’s entire life cycle from the very beginning. 

The two researchers who spent years at the site studying the volcano were William Foshag of the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Jenaro Gonzalez Reyna of the Mexican government.

Between 1943 and 1948, over fifty scientific papers were written about the volcano, which was largely responsible for the biggest increase in our understanding of how volcanoes work. 

As for Dionisio Pulido, even after the volcano erupted, he technically owned the land, and so….he owned the volcano. 

Despite losing his farm and income, he had a sense of humor about everything. Before having to leave his home for the last time, he posted a sign which read, “This volcano is owned and operated by Dionisio Pulido.”

Pulido eventually sold the land to the Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo Cornado who went by the name Dr. Atl. He wrote a book in 1950 titled “How a Volcano is Born and Grows – Paricutín.” 

He actually lost his leg observing the volcano during one of his expeditions.

You can actually visit Paricutin today. It is actually a major tourist attraction. To visit, you have to make it to the village of Angahuan. From there, you can travel on horseback to the volcano and visit the ruins of the church at San Juan Parangaricutiro. 

The only thing that can be see of the church are its towers that stick out of the hardened lava.

So, what exactly happened? How did a farm field become a volcano so quickly?

Paricutin lies on what is known as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. It is a region that runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific across Southern-Central Mexico. 

Paricutin was located in a particularly thin spot on the crust where lava was able to break through the surface. It was the geological equivalent of opening up a pressurized container. 

These sorts of events probably happen frequently in geologic time but just don’t frequently happen in terms of human time. It is highly unlikely that we will ever witness anything like this again any time soon. 

So, if you are tired of the same old boring geology with rocks that are millions or billions of years old and are looking for something a bit more fresh, check out the Paricutin Volcano, the youngest, hippest volcano in the world.