Geologists say pressure is building up beneath the surface of the Piparo mud volcano giving credence to the possibility that there could be an eruption sometime in the future. Active changes have also been seen on the surface and subsurface of the volcanic vents which erupted 22 years ago, displacing 31 families and killing livestock and birds.
During an interview, resident Pamela Khan said she hoped an accurate prediction could be made as to when the volcano will erupt. Khan said she was 12 when the volcano erupted on February 22, 1997.
"My father told me that before the eruption they were hearing hissing noises and gas was coming up from below the ground long before the volcano erupted," Khan said.
This time around she is hoping that the geoscientists' warning could enable evacuation before an eruption.
President of the Blind Welfare Association Kenneth Surratt whose parent's home is on the periphery of the volcano also expressed hope that better management systems could be put in place in the event of an eruption.
Surratt said there were enough signs to facilitate evacuation before the Piparo volcano erupted in 1997.
"We had enough time to evacuate. My parents said the road was cracking and they were feeling strange movements on the ground weeks before it erupted.
"They were telling people in authority about the cracks and earth movements but nobody was taking them seriously. When the volcano erupted truckloads of relief items were brought in the area but it did not go to the Piparo villagers.
"Many were so traumatised that they left everything and ran out of the village. They never benefited from aid and the outsiders who came in collected relief items," Surratt said.
He recalled the plight of his cousin who picked up her baby brother and ran for miles to her grandmother's home, screaming that her parents were killed by the erupting volcano.
"My cousin never forgot that day. The people who were directly affected never got the counselling they needed," Surratt said.
Geologists: We need to prepare the community
Senior geoscientist at Touchstone Exploration Xavier Moonan said recent studies done over the past year at the Piparo volcano confirm that the volcano was showing active changes. He said unscientifically, the volcano has a cyclicity of large eruptions every 25 to 30 years.
"As such, one can interpret that an eruption can be imminent," Moonan said.
In July 2018 the Petroleum Geoscience programme at the University of the West Indies, under the stewardship of Dr Ryan Ramsook, decided to undertake an integrated geoscience study on the Piparo Mud Volcano.
"We can confirm that the vent is rising but during the rainy season the muds are being eroded at a faster rate than it is rising," Moonan said. He noted that the eroded mud is being redeposited along the flanks of the mud volcano. "We can approximate that had there been no erosion of the mud volcano over the past couple years, the central vent area would have been at least ten feet higher," he said.
Moonan noted that the findings were not concrete as more time for analysis was needed.
"While the data currently suggests that the mud volcano is 'swelling' as pressure builds at depth, our findings are still preliminary as trends over a longer term are needed to conclusively state the status of the mud volcano. Nevertheless, we need to prepare the community and all those that traverse the mud volcano daily to be vigilant and to inform the Regional Corporation for any signs of heightened activity," he said.
Moonan noted that UWI's undergraduate student Rikard Gopaul was assigned the task of pulling together the data and interpreting it as part of his final year thesis, under supervision from him and Dr Oshaine Blake (lecturer in Geophysics, UWI).
"Utilising in-house seismic tomography or resistivity equipment and UAV or drone mapping, the project produced the first 3D seismic tomography model of a mud volcano in the world. This 3D model allowed the researchers to understand the intricacies of the ground beneath the Piparo area, to see the size and shape of the mud chamber and to understand what are the key controlling factors for the mud volcano's location and future eruption.
"It was quite clear from this data that the Piparo mud volcano occurs on a left bend along a major dextral fault called the Naparima Thrust—the same fault which uplifted the area at San Fernando to produce what we know today as San Fernando Hill. The left bend causes localised heightened compression, overpressure and faulting which explains why the Piparo mud volcano is where it is."
Moonan said the research group then conducted another survey at Piparo in early 2019.
"By comparing the 2018 to 2019 survey we can note changes occurring within the main vent. The vent has become more constricted and has shifted to the east south-east. These changes occurring beneath the ground correspond to changes noted in the 3D elevation models from the drone surveys," Moonan said.
He added that Rikard Gopaul will be presenting his findings on the Piparo Mud Volcano in August at the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) International Conference and Exhibition, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Corporation to start education campaign
Chairman of the Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporation Henry Awong said they were continuing to monitor the volcano and put systems in place in the event of an eruption.
However, he noted that the corporation does not have the capacity to respond directly because of limited resources.
"We have other responsible agencies which can assist in that operation. We plan to begin an educational campaign throughout the district as well as coordinate with the Disaster Management Unit in the event of an eruption," Awong said.
He added that the educational drive will be spearheaded by the Community Emergency Response Team.
Piparo's volcano eruption facts
•The Piparo Mud Volcano last erupted on February 22, 1997, approximately one year after an eruption at the Devil's Woodyard mud volcano.
•During the eruption, thick warm liquid mud spewed up to 200 ft in the air. The expanse of volcanic dirt covered an area of 2.5 km, displacing some 31 families.
•Moonan said the Piparo volcano was the first mud volcano eruption in the world which resulted in displacement of lives and damage to infrastructure.
•In 2006, the Lumpur Sidoarjo mud volcano in Indonesia became the second such tragic mud volcano eruption in the world, displacing 39,700 persons and causing more than US$2.7 billion in damage.