Mask, dog, machete. If you smell rotten eggs, wear your mask against volcanic gas. When attacked by feral cows, release your dog. Chase down a cow*. Use your machete. Welcome to the exclusion zone.
It wasn’t always like this, but when Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano started roaring in 1995, locals were given 48 hours to pack food and leave their houses. Soon, the Caribbean island’s capital, Plymouth, was buried in nearly four meters of volcanic mud.
The volcano hasn’t stopped erupting since, and half of the island is cordoned off. A few have ventured back, but it’s far from safe. Two years after evacuation, 19 people were incinerated by a river of boiling gas and rocks. The remaining population is mainly composed of passing drug smugglers and feral cows. Joblakk, 52, hunts them: “Between my house and the volcano, a hill provides shelter. There is an ash cloud sometimes, but the wind usually blows it the other way. It takes bravery and some understanding of how the volcano works, but it’s so nice to be alone.”
Escaping the impact of volcanoes may be impossible. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines injected over 18 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the sky, and the particles acted as a sunscreen that cooled the Earth for three years. And 70,000 years ago, the eruption of a supervolcano in Indonesia triggered a decade of winter that left only 2,000 people alive on the entire planet. It was the closest humans have ever come to extinction. Volcanoes were the world’s most powerful climate changers – until we arrived.
“It takes bravery and some understanding of how the volcano works, but it’s so nice to be alone.”
Joblakk Allen, 52, Plymouth, Montserrat
† A cow must eat 13 kilograms of grain to produce a single kilogram of beef. As humans multiply to over 9 billion by 2050, vegetarianism may be our only means of battling food scarcity.
How to escape a volcano
If it’s noon and still dark outside, your local volcano has finally blown. Run, hide, or improvise. In 1902, Ludger Sylbaris was imprisoned in Martinique when Mount Pelée erupted. He urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the ventilation grate of his underground cell to block the volcano’s superheated gases. He was one of just three survivors in a city of 30,000.
How to protect yourself at home
For a hurricane, decorate your house with crossed strips of tape on every window. When the glass shatters, the panes will fall out in one piece instead of blasting in to slice up anyone inside.
When a tornado’s about to hit, hide in the bath. The bathtub is one of the only things in your house securely anchored to the floor. Hold the taps tight for when the roof blows off.
If in doubt, dive under a table. It’s recommended to Uzbek children caught in earthquakes, tornado-plagued families in Kansas, and British citizens caught in nuclear attacks. Hold onto the legs for extra safety.
In a fire, smoke inhalation is the greatest danger. Feed a length of hose through the hole in your toilet bowl, blow hard to clear the water, and begin breathing sewer air through your improvised toilet snorkel.