More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 23

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I asked with all due temerity about ‘the doomsday scenario’. Reassuringly, that was a thousand-to-one against, according to the Professor. Which is rather a good job, as it would not only wipe Montserrat off the map, but the tidal wave would also likely take out the tourist paradise of Antigua, 35 miles away.

The holy of holies lay behind a door labelled, ASH FREE ZONE. It was the room that acted as the technical nerve centre furnished with equipment provided by the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, Scotland. Seismographs hummed contentedly away until, quite suddenly, one went into whine mode.

This clearly excited the Professor, “Earthquakes, earthquakes,” he mumbled urgently. Behind a constantly moving computer screen recording seismogram readings sat an uniformed officer of the Montserrat Defence Force. The government regarded any information relating to the volcano as a matter of extreme sensitivity. Reasonable, really. The volcano had already occasioned the fall of one government in the previous week.

All this on-site activity was backed up daily helicopter inspections carried out by local daredevil pilot, Jim MacMahon, and a constant real-time internet conference, whereby the latest readings were analysed by eager vulcanologists all over the world.

One thing about Professor Sparks. He wasn’t one of those scientific know-it-alls. “Volcanoes are complicated things – we don’t understand everything about them . . . this is a very unusual volcano in that the explosive activity is normally at the start, then it goes quiet. This one is just the opposite . . . this makes it difficult to predict.” He sounded – and looked – genuinely puzzled.

This was not reassuring. Then came a decidedly unscientific bit of analysis. “The magma dome is growing at the rate of seven hundred thousand domestic fridges a day, and increasing.”

Sorry? Apparently, this was the vulcanologist’s quantitative terminology for the build-up of the lava dome. And all that stuff will likely blow off one day, as it did at the end of June, taking 300 foot off the top and bringing a 1000-degree avalanche down on fertile farming land, and farmers.

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