On the afternoon of February 20, 1943, a farmer in rural Mexico named Dionisio Pulido noticed a shallow crevice roughly 40 meters long cutting through one of his cornfields. Unfazed, he continued tending to his crops — until just a few moments later, when this happened:
“I felt a thunder, the trees trembled, and I turned to speak to [my wife]; and it was then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself 2 or 2.5 meters high, and a kind of smoke or fine dust — grey, like ashes — began to rise up in a portion of the crack that I had not previously seen . . . Immediately more smoke began to rise with a hiss or whistle, loud and continuous; and there was a smell of sulfur.”
Within 24 hours, this volcano emerging in front of Pulido’s eyes had grown to over 50 meters high — roughly the height of a 15-story building. Its rapid growth was due mainly to an ejection of lapilli fragments the size of walnuts, as well as larger, semi-molten volcanic bombs. The volcano’s strombolian pyroclastic activity was well under way by this time, with hot ash and flames spewing as high as 800 meters in the air by the end of the first day. By the end of the week, the newborn volcano was as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza. By the following month, its eruptive column reached several kilometers into the sky.
Ultimately, by the end of its lifespan nine years later, the “Volcán de Parícutin,” as it came to be known, reached a height of 424 meters. Several nearby towns were completely decimated, while 233 square kilometers of surrounding land were significantly damaged. Two new towns had to be created to accommodate the hundreds of people who were forced to evacuate their homes. Three people lost their lives due to the volcano, albeit not directly — all three were struck by lightning bolts generated by the pyroclastic eruptions, which is a thing that apparently happens sometimes if a volcanic eruption is particularly powerful.
So, kind of a rough day for Pulido and his neighbors. He probably hadn’t considered that the phrase “semi-molten volcanic bombs” might factor into his farm chores when he woke up that morning, much less “lightning bolts generated by pyroclastic eruptions” or “lapilli fragments the size of walnuts” or “holy fucking shit the apocalypse is literally upon us.”
On the bright side, though, the Volcán de Parícutin wound up attracting geologists from across the globe due to its scientific significance. Specifically, the end of its life span in 1952 marked the first time that modern science was able to fully document the entire life cycle of a volcano. Small wonder, then, that CNN and others have listed Paricutin as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
In addition to its geological significance, the site has also become a popular tourist attraction, with people arriving each day to climb the volcano and visit the surrounding ruins. The lava-covered remains of the nearby San Juan Parangaricutiro Church look particularly cool, as you can see below.
CC photo by Danny Playami
Those who aren’t able to make it to the site itself can still witness some of the volcano’s immense destruction and significance through archival footage, such as this old-timey newsreel. Or, if you have young kids at home who sleep too soundly at night, HarperCollins has even published a critically acclaimed children’s book about it, presumably as part of their “Sometimes Fiery Death Traps Just Appear Out of Nowhere and Kill People” summer reading series.
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