Dominica, volcanic pearl of the Caribbean- an overview

When musing about the Caribbean islands’ Volcanoes, a few names will pop up at once, like Soufriere Hills on Montserrat, Pelée mount in Martinique, Grande Soufrière in Guadeloupe and maybe Kick’em Jenny. The area being rife with volcanoes and the imagination of the early settlers being limited, some people will add Soufriere St Vincent and also maybe the one on St Lucia and its famous Pitons.

The Caribbean Arc Volcanoes

The Caribbean Arc Volcanoes


One island is in my mind under represented, and I’ll try to explain why.

A small riddle to begin : Which island can boast 9 potentially active volcanoes, a cold fumarolic zone plus several extended fumarolic fields including the world’s second largest boiling water lake ? Yes, this is Dominica.

It is located between the french islands of Martinique (to the south) and Guadeloupe (to the north).

It is a bit smaller than its neigbours (only 750 km2) and is much less populated (about 72 thousand people compared to the 386 and 405 thousands of Martinique and Guadeloupe). It is an independant state since 1978, and a former British dominion.

The topography of the island is very rugged.

The ubiquitous Columbus discovered the island on 3rd November 1493, a Sunday, hence the name. Speaking of imagination….

The Carib indians descendants or Kalinagos, which are the last living in the Caribbean, are still about 3000 strong and have their own territory and elected chief, prefer to call her “Wai‘tu kubuli” meaning “her body is tall”, which shows some sense of observation. Indeed, were it not for the Grande Soufrière on the nearby Basse Terre, Mount Diablotins, at 1447 m could have claimed the title for highest mountain of the Caribbean arc.

As with many islands in this region, Dominica’s history has seen a series of fierce rivalry between the British, the French, the Spanish and the Caribs, with the British winning in the end in this case. However, as the first settlers were of french descent, local Creole or Pidgin language is rather french based and a lot of locations bear french sounding names.

On a more broad geological point of vue, Dominica is part of the Caribbean arc, but shows some specificities.

First, it is the last of the windward islands, but also the first of the Leewards islands (according to Wikipedia). So it’s kindda in the middle. Choose for yourself.

Also this the last “single” island. Afterwards, the island chain divides to the north, with the eastward islands being mainly of sedimentary nature (Grande Terre, Marie Galante, Antigua, Barbuda….) and the westward islands being of Volcanic origin (Basse Terre, Montserrat, Redonda, St Kitts, Nevis, Saba).

Also and this is one of the main difference points, the island is the only one sporting several active (or potentially active) volcanic complexes on the same emerged part. If you check the other neighbour islands, there is the Grande Soufrière, Soufriere Hills, Mount Pelée, The Quill, but for each of these islands there is only one active volcanic complex. Unfortunately, very little is known of the submarine structures in the arc, except for Kick’em Jenny which has been quite studied, as recently as last year (see the Nautilus expedition for some spectacular footage –

General Map of Dominica

General Map of Dominica



Unsurprisingly, Dominica is nearly made entirely of volcanic rocks. Some exceptions exist, but are very limited in area and number. Contrary to the northern neighbor Marie Galante, which is called “La galette” due to its flat topography, and is made of sedimentary rocks.

Volcanic rocks from different geological area can be found since the Miocene. The oldest rocks date back to 6,92 Ma or possibly 13 Ma. Some volcanic centers stopped being active and suffered from erosion even as new volcanic areas were and are active.

There are also submarine volcanic domes which were identified to the north of the island to the south of Guadeloupe. The 2 domes which are referred as “Twin Peaks”, rise from 1000 m from the sea floor and the highest peak reaches 153 m below sea levek.

There is another smaller submarine dome some distance from the NW coast, over 700 m high and culminating at 550 m depth.


“Twin Peaks” – and location off the coast


It is not known if these domes are potentially active.

About 1 Ma ago volcanic activity switched from the northern part of the island (with some residuals) to the south.

Six major volcanic centers were active since the Younger pleistocene to present.

Morne trois pitons, morne Watt, Wotten wave/Micotrin, Grand soufriere hills (again!), Morne anglais, and plat pays volcanic complex. Finally there is the Valley of desolation, a very active fumarolic fields in which you find the famous Boiling lake (to get there you need an 8 hour trek in the jungle). The boiling lake in a flooded fumarole at the bottom of a small lake (the total length is about 60 m in diameter)

Some very active Fumaroles in the Valley of Desolation - photo by author

Some very active Fumaroles in the Valley of Desolation – photo by author


The valley of desolation fumarolic field - general view - the Boiling lake is at the top of the picture – photo by author

The valley of desolation fumarolic field – general view – the Boiling lake is at the top of the picture – photo by author

The Boiling Lake – 2nd biggest boiling lake in the world - photo by author

The Boiling Lake – 2nd biggest boiling lake in the world – photo by author


The linguistically inclined have already noted that most of the places name sound french…because they are. Morne is a creole word meaning mount or hill. Piton is a peak, Plat Pays means flat land.

The most recent activity happened between 50 000 to 450 BP. All these centres have had some rather recent seismic activity, and together with Morne aux Diables and Morne Diablotins are considered potentially active centers.


Dominica's potentially live volcanic centers

Dominica’s potentially live volcanic centers


Again I disgress to explains place’s names. Diables and Diablotins means devil and little devils. This does not refer to any surnatural creature but are just the names of now extinct birds, which fell prey to the first rats brought by the early settlers and to the settlers themselves.


Le Père Labat - swashbuckling & picaresque Dominican Monk

Le Père Labat – swashbuckling & picaresque Dominican Monk

They were described (including explanations on how to capture and cook them) by the famous Père Labat, a monk of the Dominican order, friend of the french flibustiers, who swashbuckled in all the Caribbean area between 1694 and 1705 and introduced the distilling rum still. A fiery 59° rum from Marie Galante is named in his honour. He made also some visit to the Soufrière of Guadeloupe which he described in his book.

A drawing of the Soufriere of guadeloupe and of a Diable bird

A drawing from Labat’s memoirs of the Soufriere of guadeloupe and of a Diable bird


Seismicity in Dominica

Earthquake swarms have been felt by the population since the early settlers.

Events were reported in 1765, 1841(North),1849,1893 (North), and 1937/1938.

Since 1953 and the installation of the first seismic network, there were swarms in 1959,1967,1971, 1976, 1985/86, 1994/95, 1997 and 1998/2000. There were some swarm in the north in 2000 and 2003.

Since 2000 the seismic background level seems to be higher.

In the south more than the majority of the swarms have been associated with the Morne Plat Pays Volcanic complex. Between 1998 and 2000 there were about 1500 earthquakes in that region and even if the frequency has diminished it is still more elevated that before the swarms onset. This swarm is rather shallow (2 to 6 km depth) and could be the result of magma repressurisation.

South seismicity 2002

South seismicity 2002


In the north, the Morne aux Diables and Morne Diablotin volcanic area has shown more than 500 events between 2000 and 2003.

Northern Seismicity 2003

Northern Seismicity 2003


Dominica is a destination of choice for the volcanically inclined. The island can boast several interesting or unique volcanic features and can provide very interesting excursions. Dominicans are a very friendly people and try to preserve their island from the evil of mass tourism. If some people are interested I can provide information on how to get there and who to contact.

Source Jan M. Lindsay, Alan L. Smith M. John Roobol and Mark V. Stasiuk Dominica, Chapter for Volcanic Hazards Atlas,


Here are Matt´s riddles! This week the answers could be volcanoes, volcanic or geologic features. 



1) The two images. Answer: Bishop Tuff, KarenZ, 2 points. 

2) Holy Moses!  Tiny Tim has a tomahawk and a walleye! Answer: Coso volcanic field. This field is in the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, which developed the Tomahawk, Tiny Tim, Walleye, and Holy Moses missiles. Sissel, 2 points. 

3) The division of the Trinity. Answer:  Rio Grande rift. The Trinity site, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated, is at the White Sands missile range in this rift. Talla and Bobbi, 1 point each. 

4) It’s dot zero west of Denver. Answer: Dotsero volcano, a marr in Colorado, which erupted only about 4400 years ago! Inannamoon667, 2 points. 

5) Pink Floyd and Luke’s father know where it is. It’s radioactive. Answer: Compton Belkovich thorium anomaly (This is a volcanic feature on the dark side of the moon, possibly a caldera.  This is unusual, because almost all of the moon’s lavas are on the side facing earth.  It was revealed because of the detection of thorium deposits.  Someday, it might be a good place to mine rare-earth elements. Bobbi, 2 points. 


Score board:

7 Sissel
3 KarenZ
3 Inannamoon667
2 Dinojura44
1 Bobbi
1 RenatoRio


145 thoughts on “Dominica, volcanic pearl of the Caribbean- an overview

  1. Great post! Having a Barbadian ancestor, a daughter of a customer that my grx3 granpa served as a ship Captain.
    Always wanted to see that part of the Caribbean.

  2. Yay…. Tooth monster won’t shut up. He’s at the glass door barking at a rabbit in the front yard. Though alert, the rabbit doesn’t seem overly concerned.

    • Hi

      Hey, the Fromelles museum is now open – not far from where I live. Respect to these guys from down under who came over here.

  3. Le père Labat in a VC post! Surprise 😀 I buy a bottle every time I go back in France. 59% yet very drinkable and tasty.

    BTW, completely out of subject I just found a very interesting document about the massive Cantal volcano in France (lost in the rubble of touristic websites):

    Click to access cantalbvolc.pdf

    Very well known touristic destination, yet not so famous volcano-wise. Probably because of its well-earned retirement 🙂

    • Salut Gilles

      I know why there are some bottles of 59° rhum which are yellow tinted and some are not. But here is

      the boiler of the distillery – probably a unique piece considering the design

      and the distilling column – also unique – and made of copper

      • That looks distinctly Like a converted steam locomotive from late 1800’s. And why not? It Will most likely produce gallons of fine tasting high powered caribbean rum! Fine piece of work.

      • Nice pictures, thanks! I find the low-tech design rather reassuring 🙂 It definitely isn’t some mass-produced artificial stuff!

  4. Del volcán Chaparrastique podríamos esperar coladas de lava por sus flancos. No esperamos una erupción fuertísima”, Eduardo Gutiérrez

    Google Translate – Chaparrastique the volcano we would expect lava flows by their sides. We do not expect a very strong eruption, “Eduardo Gutiérrez

    This seems fairly logical to me, although Chaparrastique has clearly had smaller explosive eruptions as well as lava flows. The lava flows can be seen all over the volcano, mostly going out towards the ocean. If you fly over the volcano on google earth, you can easily see the areas where lava flows were most recently deposited.

    With that said, the crater indicates a potential for explosive eruptions – you don’t like that just from lava flows. I wouldn’t expect anything huge from this volcano, but it should be fun to watch once it starts erupting! Hopefully the locals stay safe and won’t have any large property damage.

  5. must be time for winter to come so as I spend more time on the inner webs… trying hard to keep up. Almost missed this post. Great one dfm! Really intriguing!

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