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Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO)

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
The official site from where a team of volcanologists monitor Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano's activity and hazards. For tourists, there's a small visitor centre – but the main draw is the view of the volcano itself. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  
More background info: see under Montserrat for a summary of the volcanic events and their impact on the island.
 
From the beginnings of the volcano's sudden awakening, scientists have been flocking to the island. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) was set up soon after the initial explosive events of 1995, initially bearing a series of different designations and run in co-ordination with various bodies such as the British Geological Survey. Since 1999 the MVO has been a statutory authority of the Government of Montserrat. It's now run by a combination of local and non-local bodies … but this is not really the place for lingering on the (rather complex) bureaucratic nature of this institution.
 
Suffice it to say that the MVO, after having been housed initially in adapted pre-existing buildings, has since December 2002 been housed in a purpose-built edifice on the hillside overlooking the volcano directly, but from a safe distance. Apart from all the volcanologists' observation gear inside and its own helipad right in front of it, the new MVO has also been granted a small tourist visitor centre and a viewing deck. It is thus the most tourist-developed volcano-related spot on Montserrat.
  
For the Montserratians, however, the MVO is of crucial importance as the institution that is responsible for the official hazard levels being raised or lowered – on a scale of 1 to 5. The higher the current hazard level, the more of the island's southern "zones" are either off limits altogether or only restricted access is allowed. When the hazard level is raised to 4 (or higher), this has a direct impact on part of the population, namely those that live close to the Belham river valley, such as in Old Towne, within Zone B. These people are then no longer allowed to spend the nights in their properties – the argument being that at night the volcanologists cannot keep the same level of observation. So it's essentially a safety precaution. That's as may be, but it sure is inconvenient for the people affected.
 
As the bureaucratic division of labour between the MVO and the police also seems to be contested by some, the otherwise relaxed and friendly atmosphere can get, well, somewhat dented at such times. As one local put it, "The MVO isn't exactly the most popular institution here" … Given that the MVO is there for everybody's safety you may be tempted to call this attitude ungrateful, but you can also understand that people get annoyed by restrictions being imposed that directly affect their lives and that are simply imposed from above. It's a delicate matter and I don't want to take sides … however, the dramatic events that followed in January and especially February 2010 at least corroborate the MVO's judgement regarding the hazard levels quite irrefutably.
 
For the tourist, little of these tensions will be noticeable, but the access restrictions obviously apply to visitors at least as much as to locals and this can severely restrict how close to the south of the island you will be allowed to venture. When I visited in late December 2009, the hazard level was at 4, which meant only Zone A was freely accessible and the viewing points within Zone B/C were strictly off limits. The maritime exclusion zones along the coast were also closed even for daytime transit.
  
The MVO's vantage point over the south of the island, remains the principal port of call for volcano viewing in any case – and is thus of major interest to the dark tourist too. Only at the very highest hazard level could access to Zone A, within which the MVO is located, also be restricted – in that case only the Jack Boy Hill viewpoint in the north-east of the island would remain freely accessible (see under Montserrat).
 
To check current hazard level and reports on activity, read further background info and see some images visit the MVO's website at www.mvo.ms.
 
 
What there is to see: first and foremost, Montserrat's active Soufriere Hills volcano itself, which can be observed from the MVO's viewing deck better than from any other regularly accessible point on the island. But the MVO also has its own visitor centre, where the relevant volcanology has – to a degree – been commodified for tourists.
 
Once you've paid your admission fee – which you may also rather regard as a kind of obligatory donation (what's on display alone wouldn't quite justify the price) – you're allowed into the single exhibition room. If you time it right the visit starts with a short documentary film beamed onto a mid-sized silver screen.
 
If the film feels strangely familiar then you've probably seen David Lea's "Price of Paradise", the seminal film that covers the story of Montserrat's volcano in more detail (see the main Montserrat entry). The much shorter MVO film is almost an abridged digest version: not only does it use some of the very same video footage, even the words of the voice-over are partly the exact same, verbatim, but spoken by a different (female) voice. Also included in the film is the famous footage of a pyroclastic flow going over water (caught here for the very first time ever), as well as some images from the destroyed island capital of Plymouth – its "modern-day Pompeii" – and other parts of the island.
 
Apart from the film there are two interactive computer screen stations with headphones. On one of these stations you can view and listen to more video material, ordered thematically and explaining the nature of e.g. pyroclastic flows, lahars, and lava dome growth. It's like a crash course in volcanology. The other station contains a timeline of events, virtual tours or more such additional information. If you're not yet familiar with Montserrat's volcano, its specific nature and eruption history, here's your chance to get pretty thoroughly educated about it.
 
On the walls are several additional charts and posters providing yet more information. Perhaps most intriguing for the volcanologically lay visitor, however, are the cabinets containing a few artefacts. These include not only specimens of lava bombs, andeside dome rock, sulphur and ash, but also objects retrieved from near pyroclastic flows, such as half-melted bottles – evidence that even 20-30 metres (65-100 feet) outside the flow itself temperatures must have reached in excess of 600 degrees Celsius. Also displayed are bits of equipment, including a mangled seismometer and a semi-molten digital camera from the time of the December 1997 explosion.
 
The objects are all clearly labelled and explained in straightforward English – only some of the wall charts can get a little more technical, but nothing is really too overtaxing for the lay visitor. It's certainly all nicely illuminating.
  
On the other hand: don't be too surprised (like me) when the staff at the MVO are a bit stand-offish, unhelpful, or even bossy. I was even told off for taking photographs, accompanied by an angry finger pointing out the sign by the door … only, that sign said "no videography inside the exhibition" – but I was only wielding a stills photo camera. I pointed this out too, but I had the impression that maybe she just didn't know the difference or didn't care … Anyway, to keep on the safe side I've refrained from reproducing any shots of displayed artefacts or screen contents. I know from other people that the MVO can generally be very pernickety and protective when it comes to their material … so better not.
 
In contrast, the outside of the building, and of course the volcano itself, have to be regarded as in the public domain, so I compensated by putting up more shots of the volcano here (see also under the general entry for Montserrat).
  
The volcano itself is, after all, the real star – one that no exhibition can match, certainly for first-hand spectacular displays of nature's forces. That's of course depending on when you visit, i.e. whether you're lucky enough to be there when there's such a volcanic show going on. At the time when I visited, in December 2009, it was a period of a lot of activity in general and I was fortunate enough to be able to observe some highly impressive volcano action: such as small and mid-sized pyroclastic flows, ash plumes, vigorous venting from the crater and continuous rockfalls from the lava dome.
  
The latter were particularly dramatic to see after dark, when the crater became visibly aglow. It's also only at night that you can see the true nature of pyroclastic flows, when even relatively small ones show the heat they are driven by. At night they appear as streams of bright-red glow going downhill. Whereas in daylight, they look just like massive cold dust clouds (deceptively so). And while the flows are eerily silent, you do occasionally hear the venting of gas or the rumble from rockfalls – after all, some of these rocks can be the size of a van or even larger …
 
At times of less activity you may only see a bit of white steam and gas billowing from the crater. But you still get the view over the valleys and down to the Richmond Hill northern part of Plymouth a bit further in the distance – you need a good zoom lens or binoculars with good magnification to see more than just a vague outline of the town half buried in ash and lahar mud. Clearly visible is what used to be the island's golf course by the mouth of the Belham river – now a desolate area mostly covered in grey volcanic mud.
 
If the volcano is calm when you visit, then at least you have a much better chance of being allowed closer to or even into Plymouth, Montserrat's "modern-day Pompeii". So it can go either way. I was glad that I was able to see so much volcanic action, but regret that it was not possible to even get to the viewpoints closer to Plymouth (such as the one atop of Garibaldi Hill) or to see the former Air Studios building. But you can't have it both ways, such is the nature of the volcanic hazards … The view from the MVO was the best I could get – apart from the boat trip to the coastline near Plymouth (see under Montserrat).
 
At least the MVO visitor centre provides for good evidence and film coverage of the volcano's actions even when it is quiet itself.
 
 
Location: on the south-facing slopes of Centre Hills, that is on a hillside position right opposite the Soufriere Hills volcano itself; near the settlement of Fleming, to the east of (and above) Salem, which is now the southernmost business district of Montserrat .
 
Google maps locator:[16.7487,-62.2126]
   
 
Access and costs: fairly easy by car, otherwise tricky; volcano viewing is free, but the visitor centre charges an admission fee.
 
Details: to get to the MVO one really needs a car. You can visit the MVO as part of a guided tour (see under Montserrat) or pay for taxi rides (this can pile up and cripple your budget), but it's much better to have your own rental car. Most tourists on Montserrat opt for this anyway – and for good reasons in general.
 
Finding the MVO has now been made a lot easier than in the past by way of much needed signposting. Basically you first have to drive the island's main road south all the way through Salem; at a crossroads opposite a shop and bar called "Desert Storm" you turn left and take the track going up the hill. After some ascent turn right – the road now goes down a bit again – then left again (look out for the little sign) and up the rest of the steep track. This leads directly to the large, concrete tower-like MVO building. It's at the end of the track and quite unmissable.
 
There's a car park right in front, though nominally that's for MVO vehicles only. But if it's after hours and/or there's sufficient space you can just park there (the worst that can happen is that they shoo you away). Otherwise there's space for a couple of vehicles outside the proper car park too.
 
The observation deck is freely accessible at any time of day or night – much of the time the helipad can be used for setting up tripods too. But as for the tourist facilities inside the building, the following applies:
 
Admission to the vistor centre including the documentary film is 10 EC$ or 3.75 USD (in cash – though apparently they are also supposed to accept credit cards!).
 
The opening times of the visitor centre are a bit restricted: Mondays to Thursdays from 10:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – the introductory film is shown every hour at quarter past the hour.
 
Note that the facility remains closed all weekend and also on public holidays (of which Montserrat has plenty – so better check ahead).
 
 
Time required: the film shown at the visitor centre takes about 20 minutes; viewing the displays adds about the same amount of time, or more if you want to go through everything on offer at the two interactive screen stations. In total about an hour may do to see the essentials on offer – but: viewing the volcano can make you stay a lot longer than that, depending on what kind of show it is putting on at the time. There have been times when cycles of activity were incredibly regular (e.g. every six hours), but otherwise it's more hit and miss, even at times of increased general activity. So be prepared to pay several return visits to the viewing deck.
 
I personally went up to the MVO some seven or eight times over five days when I was on Montserrat in late December 2009. The first visit to the MVO was supposed to be part of a general guided island tour but had to be abandoned due to intense ashfall coming directly over us at the time. But I was lucky the very first time I returned with my own rental car – I got there just in time for some impressive pyroclastic flows and surges kicking off and sending a huge plume of ash and smoke high into the sky and over the sea. The wind was coming from a more favourable direction that time.
 
I came back several times after that but never saw the same degree of action again from so close up. The plumes of ash/smoke towering over the island can, on the other hand, be seen from many parts of the island further away. But by the time you can see them, the action at the crater will already be over, so there's no point chasing after them. You have to be at the viewing deck already when things kick off. So it does depend quite a bit on luck.
 
In total I may have spent something like eight hours at the MVO, mostly for volcano viewing. Real volcano fans could easily spend days up here – esp., of course, when there's lots of activity going on … it really is incredibly captivating!
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Montserrat.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Montserrat.
  
 
 
  • MVO 1 - exhibition roomMVO 1 - exhibition room
  • MVO 2 - interactive stationMVO 2 - interactive station
  • MVO 3 - volcano explainedMVO 3 - volcano explained
  • MVO 4 - the helipad and the volcanoMVO 4 - the helipad and the volcano
  • MVO 5 - watching volcano actionMVO 5 - watching volcano action
  • MVO 6 - it feels much closer than it looksMVO 6 - it feels much closer than it looks
  • MVO 7 - rock falls on the eastern slopeMVO 7 - rock falls on the eastern slope
  • MVO 8 - what used to be the golf course, now covered by laharsMVO 8 - what used to be the golf course, now covered by lahars
  • MVO 9a - view of PlymouthMVO 9a - view of Plymouth
  • MVO 9b - volcano observation by nightMVO 9b - volcano observation by night
  • MVOMVO

  

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