It's Rare, But Volcanoes and Earthquakes Can Affect Caribbean Travel

Plymouth, Montserrat ruins
Plymouth, Montserrat ruins. Andrew Shiva/CC by SA 4.0

We tend to associate volcanoes with Hawaii and earthquakes with California, but the Caribbean has its fair share of seismic and volcanic hotspots, too. Earthquakes are more common in the Caribbean than volcanoes, and while big events are rare, both can sometimes disrupt travel and put lives at risk. But you're much more likely to marvel at the remnants of an ancient eruption or earthquake than be involved in one yourself in the Caribbean.

Should the risk of an earthquake or volcanic eruption affect your decisions about traveling to the Caribbean? Well, no more so than they would enter into the equation when planning a trip to, say, the Big Island or Los Angeles. And certainly not to the degree that you might ponder the impact of a Caribbean hurricane or tropical storm -- and even that risk is pretty minimal. 

Where Can Earthquakes and Eruptions Strike?

The Caribbean is a seismically active area because the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates meet here, and fault lines occur where these tectonic plates move against one another. In places where one plate moves under another, the rock can melt, and pressure can push this molten lava to the surface, causing volcanic eruptions.

Earthquakes are relatively common in the Caribbean, but usually not very powerful. Vacationers planning on some fun in the sun may be surprised to learn that the Caribbean experiences more than 3,000 earthquakes each year; that's because most are so small that they go unnoticed by everyone other than seismologists.

The devastating January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was an exception -- a magnitude 7.0 temblor on the Richter scale that had its epicenter just 10 miles from the country's capital city. The Haiti earthquake resulted from a slippage along the Enriquilla-Plantain Garden Fault that runs east-west through Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Hispaniola also is home to another major fault line, the Septentrional Fault, which cuts across the northern interior of the island and also underlies Cuba.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake was devastating, with a death toll of at least 100,000 people and a quarter of a million buildings destroyed. Dozens of even stronger earthquakes have been recorded in the region over the last century, including a magnitude 7.7 quake in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1943 and a 7.5 magnitude quake in St. John, Antigua, in 1974. One of the most infamous earthquakes in history struck Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692, causing most of the city -- at the time, the wealthiest port in Jamaica as well as a legendary pirate haven -- to slide into the sea.

The Lost Cities of Plymouth and Saint-Pierre, Both Claimed by Volcanoes

The Western Antilles islands of the Caribbean are home to a string of active, dormant and extinct volcanoes. The most notable is the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat, which had a series of major eruptions in the 1990s that resulted in the destruction of the island's capital city, Plymouth. Once a jet-setting destination for movie stars and musicians, including Beatles producer George Martin who located his famous Air Studios on the island, Montserrat still struggles to recover from the devastation unleashed by "Madame Soufriere."

In all, there are 17 active volcanoes in the Caribbean region, including Mount Pelee on Martinique, La Grande Soufriere on Guadeloupe, Soufriere St. Vincent in the Grenadines, and Kick 'em Jenny -- an underground volcano off the coast of Grenada that could someday become a new island (the summit is now more than 500 feet below the ocean's surface).

On St. Lucia, tourists can experience the island's unique "drive-in volcano" and enjoy a dip in hot springs and mud baths that are a reminder of the island's (now dormant) volcanic past. Far more somber are the ruins of the town of Saint-Pierre on Martinique: the "Paris of the Caribbean" was engulfed by lava and pyroclastic flow from Mount Pelee in 1902, killing 28,000 people. Just two residents survived. 

For most travelers, volcanoes are more of a tourist attraction than an impediment to travel; occasionally, steam and ash from Montserrat will cause delays or diversions for air travelers, but the ruins of Plymouth remain one of the most fascinating sights in the Caribbean -- a must see on a Montserrat Volcano Tour.