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Caribbean, Montserrat

Soufriere Hills volcano, pyroclastic flow, Hurricane Hugo, fine mineral, Olveston

Montserrat, dependency of the United Kingdom, one of the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, in the Caribbean Sea. Montserrat is located southwest of Antigua and northwest of Guadeloupe. A governor administers the dependency with the assistance of executive and legislative councils.

The island, 102 sq km (39 sq mi) in area, is mountainous, rising to the peak of the Soufriere Hills volcano (914 m/ 2,999 ft). After centuries of lying dormant, the Soufriere Hills volcano rumbled back into activity in 1995 with minor eruptions that continued through 1996. The volcano erupted violently on several occasions in 1997, killing 19 people in June and pelting the southern portion of Montserrat with fiery gas, rocks, and ash on a number of occasions.

The main economic activity on Montserrat is farming. Principal agricultural products include tomatoes, white potatoes, onions, carrots, limes, and cotton. Manufactures include electronic equipment, metal and plastic goods, linen, and clothing. The volcanic eruptions in 1997 devastated the islandís economy. The British government sent financial aid and provided supplies to build housing for the remaining population.

The island was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and was named by him for a noted monastery on Montserrat, a mountain in Spain. Settled by the English and Irish in 1632, the island was held by the French for four years in the 1660s and again from 1782 to 1783, when it came under definitive British control. From 1871 to 1956 Montserrat was part of the Federation of the Leeward Islands, and in 1958 it became a member of the Federation of the West Indies. Following the dissolution of the federation in 1962, the inhabitants of the island voted to remain a dependency of Great Britain. Hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1989.

In 1995 Soufriere Hills volcano began exhibiting signs of volcanic activity. Residents were evacuated several times from the southern third of the island, which includes the capital of Plymouth. Minor eruptions in 1996 forced a final evacuation of the area. A series of major eruptions caused serious damage during the second half of 1997. Nineteen people were killed following a June 25 eruption. In August an eruption destroyed Plymouth (population, 1995 estimate, 3,500), the islandís capital and only major community. A pyroclastic flow (a stream of heated rock, ash, and gases) set fire to many buildings and further eruptions buried much of the city beneath drifts of ash. In September an eruption destroyed the islandís airport in Olveston after flows of heated gas set fire to the complex.

The southern region of the island remained uninhabited into 1999 as volcanic activity continued. Most of the islandís population of 12,771 (1996 estimate) evacuated to neighboring islands. The remaining residents, numbering about 4,000, took refuge on the northern edge of the island, which is sheltered from the volcano by a range of hills. In early 1999 scientists announced that the eruption may have exposed island residents to harmful levels of cristobalite, a fine mineral which can cause lung disease.

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