Heptune presents:

Pagan, Northern Marianas

A Close-Up Look at an Active Volcano

by Brenna Lorenz

*** There are a lot of photos on this page, so it will take some time to load. Please be patient! ***

    Pagan is a volcanic island located 173 nautical miles north of Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. It is a collection of classic island-arc stratovolcanoes that formed west of the Marianas trench. The trench marks the line where the Pacific plate is diving down beneath the Philippine plate.
    The islands of the Marianas (which include Guam at the southernmost end), are arranged in two parallel arcs. Closest to the trench is the inactive frontal arc, which runs north from Guam to Medinilla, and then continues underwater in a series of seamounts. To the west runs the active volcanic arc, going from Farallon de Pajaros in the north to Anatahan in the south, where the chain passes underwater. Active volcanic seamounts parallel the frontal arc south to Guam.
    You can find a map of the Northern Marianas at Virtual Atlas,  and a map of Pagan courtesy of the CNMI Guide.

    I visited Pagan in early 1994, thanks to the Northern Marianas Environmental Protection Agency, and took the photographs on this page at that time.

    Pagan experienced a major volcanic eruption in 1981, when Mt. Pagan in the north exploded with a glowing avalanche that fortunately flowed away from the small village of almost 60 people located south of the volcano.
    The people of the village were not surprised. They had been seeing ash and feeling earthquakes for some time, they told me, and had asked to be evacuated. Their request was refused because it was thought that the volcano was not likely to erupt violently. The mayor of Pagan was in short-wave radio contact with someone in Saipan at the moment that the eruption occurred. "This is it!" he shouted. "Come get us!" A lava flow came down the volcano heading towards the village and the airstrip. The people fled to the south, crossing the narrow neck that separates the northern part of the island from the southern part, and took refuge behind a tall ridge. They figured that the lava wouldn't be able to cross the ridge (and they were probably right). But the lava flow missed the village and stopped when it had covered part of the airstrip. The people were evacuated without mishap, injury or death, and taken to Saipan, where they were resettled.

    This first picture is an aerial photograph of the lava flows that had threatened the people of Pagan:

Photograph by Brenna Lorenz of the 1981 Pagan lava flow.

    In this photo, you may be able to discern the rubbly-looking nature of the flow; it is an aa flow.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of the lava flow that buried part of the Pagan airstrip.

    Aa is a slow-moving type of lava flow in which the thick skin of the lava breaks up into chunks as it moves. This is as opposed to pahoehoe, in which the lava has a thin skin that wrinkles into a ropy texture as the molten lava flows underneath it. The following photograph shows the leading edge of the flow covering the airstrip. If you get the impression that an aa flow would not be a pleasant place to stroll, you are right. It would be virtually impossible to keep your footing on the jagged, loose rocks, and a fall on that surface would be painful at the very least. In the background, you can see ash pouring out of Mt. Pagan.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of the edge of the aa flow covering the airstrip.

    When we arrived by barge at Pagan in late March, 1994, we saw that brown ash was pouring out of the volcano. The ash rained down on us as we approached the island. We came to shore along the west side of the narrow neck that connects the two halves of the island.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of Mt. Pagan erupting, 1994.

    A helicopter flew a couple of us up close to the vent:

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of ash coming out of the vent at the summit of Mt. Pagan.

    A previous eruption, presumably a lava fountain, had produced a little cinder cone on the western flank of the volcano. Small parasitic cinder cones like this are common on larger stratovolcanoes like Pagan, and on shield volcanoes such as Kilauea in Hawaii. The cinder cone is composed of scoria fragments. These were ejected as a gas-propelled liquid from the volcano. They solidified rapidly while flying through the air, producing sand to boulder-sized fragments of black, bubbly basaltic glass. The cinder cone is on the right, with the erupting vent in the background.

Photograph of Brenna Lorenz in front of a small cinder cone near the vent of Mt. Pagan.

    It was scoria like this that buried the village of Pagan during one of the eruptions that took place after 1981. This is a photograph of the remains of the school house, buried almost up to its roof:

Photograph of the schoolhouse of Pagan village, buried in cinders.

    It was possible to crawl through the doorway of the church, and see the confessional half buried in cinders. I have been told that people have since excavated the volcanic material out of the church.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of the confessional in the Pagan church.

    The ash falling heavily from the volcano resembled brown snow. As we walked through the stinky, sulfurous ash fall, the ash coated our hair, skin and clothing, making us all rather odd-looking. The ash has permanently altered the color of the T-shirt I was wearing that day from gray to sepia tone.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of footsteps in the fresh ash that had fallen on Pagan's beach.

    The fresh ash shrouded the cliffs of layered pyroclastic rock that had formed from previous eruptions. Each eruption produces a layer of ash, lapilli or bombs which eventually lithifies (turns to rock) to form tuff or volcanic breccia.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz of fresh ash piled up in drifts against the layers of old tuff from the volcano.

    The beautiful volcano silently poured out its ash for the several days I was there. Although I listened with all my might to hear some kind of rumbling or rushing noise from the volcano, the only sounds I could hear were flies buzzing and the distant gunshots of people  hunting the overabundant feral cattle, goats and pigs that roam the island.

Photograph by Brenna Lorenz of Mt. Pagan erupting to the north.

    In spite of the active presence of the volcano, the island of Pagan is still lush and alive, as you can see in this view toward the southern part of the island. The volcanic cone visible in this picture is also a living volcano, dormant at the moment but capable of erupting at any time.

Photo by Brenna Lorenz facing south on Pagan island.

    Recent efforts to resettle Pagan and other islands in the Northern Marianas have been thwarted by typhoon activity. People would like to mine the scoria of Pagan for pozzolan and road metal. Pozzolan is added to cement to produce hydraulic cement, which is capable of hardening underwater. Scoria makes good road metal because it produces a non-skid surface when mixed with asphalt. Other people are concerned about the effect that mining operations may have on Pagan's beauty and wildlife, including its reef. Many of the people of Pagan would like to return to reestablish their old life there, although many of them would rather stay in Saipan, where life is easier and more comfortable. There has even been a modest tourist trade to Pagan, which remains a beautiful and fascinating tropical island.

Published 7/24/99.

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