The thing about French is it makes everything sound beautiful and elegant. Like this: nuée ardente. Glowing cloud. Doesn't that sound lovely? We like glowing clouds. They're pretty. And it almost sounds like some metaphor for a sexual delight, along the lines of le petite mort, which is such wonderful euphemism for an orgasm. Just remember, though, the French are the same people who can call you a shithead and make it sound sophisticated. So when they speak of glowing clouds, you might want to suspect they're not talking about something altogether pleasant.
It's really not.
|Mount Pelée's nuée ardente|
So what was this nuée ardente that sounds so lovely, and yet is so deadly? The modern scientific term for it is pyroclastic flow. That's good Greek, that, very evocative: fire broken in pieces. The "fire" is superheated gasses, which can attain temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees F. The "broken in pieces" are chunks of pumice and rocks (sometimes even boulders), combined with ash. Mix it all up, and you have a recipe for painful death if you're in its path, and pure horrifying awesome if you're not. This is one of the most dramatic, dangerous things a volcano does.
|View of Ridge at Spirit Lake. Note baldness. Photo by Moi.|
|Pyroclastic Flow at Night, Soufrière Hills. See link for more.|
Here we see the reason why the French went with the term "glowing cloud" rather than "fire broken in pieces." This is a pyroclastic flow at night. It looks rather like a cloud that glows. Hell of an amazing light show, for those who can watch from a safe distance. Geology can be beautiful and terrible all at once. The Earth is so remarkably powerful, and few things illustrate that power so well as a pyroclastic flow.
They make for some amazing rocks, too, but we'll wait to discuss those until I have some drool-worthy photos from the field. For now, just savor the term nuée ardente for a bit, and maybe work up a suitably gorgeous yet dangerous-looking dance to go with it.
Tip o' the shot glass to Elli Goeke, who mentioned that lovely phrase and got me thinking about it.