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Birth of a volcano

Mexico's Paricutin holds a unique place in geologic lore -- recent history

Paracutin Paracutin

An erupting volcano is a powerful force -- thick clouds of ash filling the sky, hot rocks hurling through the air, lava covering everything in its path. The mysteries of such an explosion, coming from the depths of the earth, tantalize scientists and non-scientists alike -- which is precisely what makes Paricutin a natural wonder.

Paricutin exploded out of a Mexican cornfield about 200 miles (322 kilometers) west of Mexico City in early 1943, giving the modern world its first opportunity to witness the birth of a volcano. Within a year, the volcano's cinder cone reached 1,100 feet (335 meters). Within two years, its slow-moving lava flows buried most of the town of Paricutin and partially buried its neighbor, San Juan Parangricutiro.

The lava eventually covered about 10 square miles (25 square kilometers). By the time the eruption ended in a blaze of violent activity in 1952, Paricutin's cinder cone added another 290 feet (88 meters).

Miraculously, the lava and ash caused no fatalities (although three people died from lightning associated with the eruption). But the young volcano changed forever the lives of the villagers who lived at its foot -- and provided an unprecedented look at the earth's amazing volcanic power.

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