Parícutin: The Mexican Cornfield Volcano

July 19th, 2013

When I was in elementary school, I had this series of books profiling the natural wonders of world that I probably picked-up at a garage sale. Most the entries were unsurprising — Mt. Everest, the Grand Canyon, etc. However, mixed in the bunch was this volcano named Parícutin that emerged from a Mexican cornfield in the 1940s. This books didn’t offer any pictures of the volcano, but it did feature some stylized drawings. The thin narrative described a volcano that unexpectedly emerged from a farmer’s field and quickly grew into a mountain. It was the sort of story that fascinated me for years and lead me to believe the ground we stand on could come alive with smoke and fire at any moment. Well it turns out this childhood book left out quite a few details that paint a more accurate picture of what happened on February 20th, 1943. First of all, the region surround the cornfield volcano is dotted with extinct cinder cones, so this is an area with a history of frequent volcanic activities. Another piece of information my old book left out is there existed a shallow pit for decades in the cornfield. It was from this pit that first fissure appeared on February 20th. The pit should have been a warning sigh since it was always warm, it could not be filled in, and strange noises were often reported coming from deep within the ground. Leading up to February 20th, there had been numerous earthquakes. On the 20th, the quakes were so frequent, villagers feared the local church would be destroyed. Dionisio Pulido, the owner of the cornfield, had headed off to burn some branches around 4:00 PM on the 20th when he noticed a fissure had opened up in the pit. He poked at it a bit, lost interest, and returned to his work. Moments later, all hell breaks loose. Smoke starts to shoot out of the pit accompanied by a piercing whistle. Not surprisingly, Dionisio, along with his field hands and family, fled the area. By 6:00 PM, a small group from the local village had approached the cornfield to investigate. By now, rocks were being blasted into the air from the pit. By the next day, lava was flowing from the small hill that had replaced the pit. The volcano was now well on its way to nine years of continuous eruption. Soon to be a mountain, Parícutin would reach a height of 9,000 feet (although it was only 1,000 feet above the original cornfield). Parícutin is believed to be a monogenetic volcano, meaning that after eruption stops, the mountain volcano becomes extinct. While there were no fatalities from ash or lava, the volcano did force many local residents to relocate and lava flows spread out from the base of Parícutin. Some interesting period film footage can be found on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website

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Entry Filed under: Science

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