Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
{search_item}
Parícutin erupting at night, 1948
Parícutin erupting at night, 1948. Photo by Carl Fries, US Geological Survey; image courtesy of National Museum of Natural History

On February 20, 1943, out of a cornfield owned by a Tarascan farmer named Dionisio Pulido, a great volcano began to emerge. For weeks the inhabitants of this village near Uruapan, about 200 miles west of Mexico City, had been experiencing tremors and deep rumblings from the earth. Pulido, his wife and child, and a farmhand were all working in the field nearby when the earth rose up some two meters (more than six feet), emitting ash and strong sulfurous vapors amidst loud hissing and explosions. By midnight a cone had developed and the eruption had begun in earnest.

Celedonio Gutierrez, a young man from the village, recalled, “In the evening, when night began to fall, we heard noises like the surge of the sea, and red flames of fire rose into the darkened sky, some rising 800 meters or more into the air, that burst like golden marigolds, and a rain like artificial fire fell to the ground.”

Parícutin was the first volcano that scientists could fully document from birth to death. Even today, witnessing the life cycle of a new volcano is rare. After little more than a day the cone was already 50 meters high (164 feet), and within a week it had reached 150 meters (nearly 500 feet). It continued to rise, hurling molten matter across the valley. The area was soon covered in smoke and ash. The villages closest to the volcano, especially those of Parícutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro, had to be evacuated. The eruption was most intense during the first year; more than 90 percent of the total material ejected by the volcano had escaped by then. By end of 1943 the cone was some 330 meters (over 1,000 feet) high. Another year later, only the towers of the church of San Juan were visible above the lava.

William Foshag, a curator of minerals at the U.S. National Museum who had studied U.S. and Mexican ore deposits, arrived about one month after the eruption started. Foshag and his Mexican colleague Dr. Jenaro González-Reyna assembled detailed descriptions of the eruption over several years, making many sketches and maps, collecting samples, and taking thousands of photographs. Foshag continued to study Parícutin’s minerals and volcanic gases until his death in 1956.

This video contains shots of William Foshag in Mexico, including him at play trying to corral a hot block of lava, and in the laboratory at the Museum years earlier, using a two-circle goniometer to measure the angles between the faces of a crystal.

video platform video management video solutions video player
A votive painting from the cathedral at San Juan Parangaricutrio, showing an early phase of the eruption, where the fields were still green and livestock grazed, and the landscape was not yet covered by volcanic deposits.
A votive painting from the cathedral at San Juan Parangaricutiro, showing an early phase of the eruption, where the fields were still green and livestock grazed, and the landscape was not yet covered by volcanic deposits. Foshag purchased the painting, which was done in c. 1943 by an unknown painter. Photo by Leslie Hale, NMNH; Accession #194796, NMNH Volcanological Reference Collection
A view of the cathedral tower of San Juan Parangaricutiro, visible above the lava flows, with Parícutin in the distance, January 25, 1945.
A view of the cathedral tower of San Juan Parangaricutiro, visible above the lava flows, with Parícutin in the distance, January 25, 1945. Photo by William Foshag, image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
William F. Foshag, c. 1943.
William F. Foshag, c. 1943. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Letter from George S. Messersmith to the U.S. Secretary of State, March 10, 1943.
Letter from George S. Messersmith to the U.S. Secretary of State, discussing the volcano, March 10, 1943. Smithsonian Institution Archives (RU 7281, Box 4)

The birth of a volcano was exciting not only to scientists. It generated tremendous interest among the populace at large. An image of Foshag was featured in Life magazine with the smoking volcano in the background. Pan American planes between Los Angeles and Mexico City reportedly diverted from their regular route in order to be able to show passengers the new volcano.

It even captured the attention of the silver screen. 20th Century Fox released a blockbuster, Technicolor film in 1947 called Captain from Castile, about a Spanish captain persecuted by the Inquisition who flees to the New World and joins Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico. Much of the film was shot on location around Parícutin, employing thousands of extras, with the active volcano dramatically showcased in some of the film’s biggest scenes. This effort made the film one of Hollywood’s most expensive to date—the production team spent 83 days in the field, often hampered by poor air quality (volcanic smog or VOG) associated with the volcano’s ash cloud.

The eruption eventually displaced several thousand residents, who were never able to return to their homes and farms. It also became the subject of paintings by the visionary Mexican artist Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964), known as Dr. Atl, who took up residence at the volcano and created numerous evocative scenes of the eruption.

Parícutin with respect to Mexico City, the capital (M), and Guadelajara (G), and the Mexican volcanic belt (indicated by dots and dashes), which runs across the central and southern part of the country.
Parícutin with respect to Mexico City, the capital (M), and Guadalajara (G), and the Mexican volcanic belt (indicated by dots and dashes), which runs across the central and southern part of the country. Luhr and Simkin, Parícutin (1993)

Parícutin, which reached a total height of 424 meters (1,391 feet), was most active in its first year. It continued to erupt until 1952, and is now considered extinct. Parícutin is part of the Michoacan-Guanajuato volcanic field, a region some 200 x 250 kilometers in size. The field is dotted with over 1,400 small volcanoes, mostly cinder cones (the most common volcanic landform on Earth) like Parícutin, with largely similar, geologically brief histories. This region falls within a belt of volcanism that stretches across Mexico. Smithsonian scientists have continued to study Parícutin, both through the collections amassed by Foshag and through more recent examinations of the now extinct volcano. The samples collected from Parícutin, part of the collections of the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Project, are a rich source of information. They enable scientists to study the volcano’s physical and chemical evolution throughout its entire life cycle, and with modern technology they can study the eruption’s chemistry and mineralogy in ever greater depth. The samples have been requested and used in at least five subsequent studies on Parícutin.

One of the first bits of lava, about 3 cm (1.18 inches) across, to come flying out of Parícutin’s newly opened vent.

One of the first bits of lava, about 3 cm (1.18 inches) across, to come flying out of Parícutin’s newly opened vent. The early ejecta were very different chemically from the rocks of the subsequent eruption, leading scientists to conclude that they were fragments of older lavas that were ejected as the magma body ascended. Photo by Ken Larsen, NMNH

A broken portion of a “bread-crust bomb,” a chunk of molten material that was thrown from the crater on May 5, 1949, which as it traveled and cooled, developed a surface texture much like the crust on a loaf of bread.
A broken portion of a “bread-crust bomb,” a chunk of molten material that was thrown from the crater on May 5, 1949. As it traveled and cooled, developed a surface texture much like the crust on a loaf of bread. This photo shows both the bomb’s outer crust and the inner structure. The inner structure’s spongy look is akin to frozen foam, the  bubbles having formed from gases escaping the molten rock. Photo by Ken Larsen, NMNH; Accession #108987 (NMNH Volcano Reference Collection)
alt text
 

Two Smithsonian volcanologists, James Luhr and Tom Simkin, prepared the definitive book on the subject in 1993: Parícutin: The Volcano Born in a Mexican Cornfield. Simkin and Luhr were successive directors of the Global Volcanism Program, the hub of an international group dedicated to tracking volcanoes on a global basis, which was established at the Smithsonian in 1985. The GVP preserves eye-witness accounts, which are especially vital when eruptions happen in remote places, such as at Home Reef in the central Tonga islands or at Dabbahu (Boina) in Ethiopia. It also monitors, reports, and maintains geographical, historical, and volcanological data on more than 3,000 volcanoes world-wide. Its monthly publication, the Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, captured and preserved five reports on Parícutin from 1983 to 1989. Those reports chiefly described escaping gases with declining temperatures (473-205°C) (in contrast, during the eruption the escaping gases had temperatures that were much higher, 1,026-1060°C).

Parícutin with respect to Mexico City, the capital (M), and Guadelajara (G), and the Mexican volcanic belt (indicated by dots and dashes), which runs across the central and southern part of the country.
 

The Natural History Museum also produced a CD Rom to summarize understanding of Mexican volcanoes, including Parícutin. Such summaries support diverse interests, including geothermal energy exploration, airline safety, and climate change research. Whether in science, art, or other fields, museums play a role in preserving specimens and artifacts that help shape our collective memory of events.

This video contains volcanologist Rick Wunderman talking about the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Project, the varied nature of volcanoes, and the April 2010 eruption in Iceland.


LINKS:

William F. Foshag

[ TOP ]