Category Archives: North America

The New Decade Volcano List; #5 Trans Mexico Volcanic Belt

The guys at Volcano Cafe have picked up where they left off with a rather interesting choice at number 5. Mexico is one of the more volcanically active countries in the world, with the likes of Popocatépetl and Colima frequently showing at least some signs of unrest.  This has been one of my favourites which they have put forward as it highlights the complexity of the region and how several systems can affect a region meaning threat can come from varying or even all sources!

Mexico City and the Trans Mexico Volcanic Belt – NDVP #5

The extinct volcano Sierra de Guadalupe rises 750 metres above Mexico City, it’s highest peak within 15 km of the centre of the city. In spite of conservation attemps, illegal buildings continue to sprout and at present the crater and debris avalanche have been completely covered by urban development. (Hotu Matua)

It is inevitable that the higher we get in this series, the more speculative our choices may seem. If everything was known about every volcano, identifying and motivating the choice of the ten most dangerous ones would be a relatively simple matter. As it is, our selections have to be based on what meagre information is available and educated guesswork as to what the full story might or could be. In our choice of number five, this is highlighted as we cannot even identify a single volcanic system as the main threat, but then the area occupied by the cities Mexico City, Toluca and Puebla is highly unusual.

Throughout almost its entire length, the Ring of Fire produces volcanoes aligned on and along the subduction zone forming a great arc of stratovolcanoes which has given rise to the term “Arc Volcanism”. But running across Mexico from Colima in the west to Pico de Orizaba in the east, the subduction zone makes an almost 90-degree turn and the volcanoes seem to align on a N-S line, perpendicular to the subducting plate. Three main such alignments are identified in recent scientific papers; Cántaro–Nevado de Colima–Colima de Fuego in the west, Tláloc–Telapón–Iztaccíhuatl–Popocatépetl (Sierra de Nevada) just east of Mexico City, and Cofre de Perote–Las Cumbres–Pico de Orizaba–Sierra Negra at the eastern end of the Trans Mexico Volcanic Belt, alternately known as the Trans Mexico Volcanic Zone. For the entire TMVB, volcanism has trended from acidic (dacite and rhyolite) to intermediate magmas (andesitic) as well as from north to south although there are numerous and noticeable exceptions to these identified trends.

The geological setting of the Trans Mexico Volcanic Belt. The numbers next to the arrows showing the direction are the annual subduction rates. The numbers along the isolines display the depth of the subducting plate as inferred from earthquakes. The TVMB is outlined in grey and the alignment of volcanoes mentioned are in yellow. Note how volcanoes (north-)west and (south-)east of the TMVB seem to align along the 300 and 100 km subduction isolines as opposed to transversing them as is the case in the TMVB. (Adapted from Macías 2007)

In addition to these three main lines of active volcanism, there are further lines of dormant or extinct volcanoes, one bordering the Mexico City plain to the west and the Toluca plain to the east with another one bordering the latter plain to the west. To complicate the matter even further, both north and south of these plains run lines of ancient, heavily eroded and extinct(?) volcanic edifices that seem to follow the subduction zone. If we also include the Puebla plain to the east of the Sierra de Nevado, there are more than 1.6 million inhabitants of Greater Toluca, 22.5 million of Greater Mexico City and 2.1 million of Greater Puebla, in all well in excess of 25 million.

Landsat image of the Toluca, Mexico City and Publa plains. The names of active to potentially active volcanoes in yellow, possible volcanic alignments are marked in blue and the 90-km-long Chichinautzin volcanic field immediately south of Mexico City, centred on the Aztec temple El Tepozteco, is circled. (Author)

Not only is the north-south alignment perpendicular to the subduction zone of the most recent volcanoes highly unusual. There is as well a dearth of large, explosive calderas in the TMVB. The semi-official blog GeoMexico laments: “There is still lots of work needed to fully unravel the geological secrets of Mexico’s Volcanic Axis which crosses the country between latitudes 19 and 21 degrees North. Unlike most volcanic belts elsewhere in the world, this one does not appear at first sight to correspond to any plate boundary. Another of the mysteries of this volcanic region, where igneous upheavals have shaped the landscape for several million years, is the relative dearth of calderas, the “super craters” formed either by collapse or by giant explosions.”

As of 1999, there were seven calderas known in the belt, one of which is in fact no more than a crater lake, Lake Alchichica, with a diameter of 1888 meters. The largest of these seven calderas is the 15 by 21 km Los Humeros caldera in the state of Puebla, close to its border with Veracruz. It lies 55 km west-north-west of the city of Veracruz (Xalapa), relatively close to Puebla (Teziutlán). The main caldera is about 400 m deep and roughly oval in shape. Prior to its formation 460,000 years ago, lava emitted from this vent covered 3500 square km with ignimbrites. Later, two smaller calderas formed nearby, with ages of about 100,000 years (Los Potreros caldera) and 30,000 years (El Xalapazco) respectively.

The 11 km wide and 400 m deep, heavily eroded Amealco caldera is located at Garabato (= unintelligible scribbles), midway between the towns of San Juan del Río and Maravatio, about 125 km NW of mexico City. Caldera-related activity started in the Pliocene ca. 4.7 Ma ago and ended around ca. 2.2 Ma. The total volume of pyroclastic flow deposits and ignimbrites is in the region of 500 cubic km. The Huichapan Caldera in the central sector of the TMVB, also referred to as the Donguinyó-Huichapan caldera complex is 10 km in diameter and appears to be the result of two overlapping calderas that date to 5 and 4.2 million years ago respectively. The rocks from the older caldera are intermediate to basic in composition, while those from the more recent caldera are acidic (high silica content) rhyolites, another relatively unusual feature.

Since then, one very interesting albeit ancient feature has been discovered in the Coxcatlán-Tilzapotla region, about 100 km south of Mexico City, just south of the TMVB. The elliptical NW-SE oriented dome structure, approximately 30 x 52 km, encompasses the Tilzapotla collapse caldera, rhyolitic domes, large volumes of ignimbrites, as well as the Buenavista intrusive body, and the Coxcatlán and Chautle plutons located west and east of the structural margin of the caldera, respectively. Previous geochronological studies carried out on the silicic and intermediate magmatic rocks places the uplift in the dome area in the late Eocene (~38-34 Ma). This suggests that doming was related to emplacement of magmas into the crust prior to collapse of the Tilzapotla caldera at 34.3 Ma.

The approximately 11 x 13 km Tilzapotla caldera is located on top of this large, rhyolitic dome feature. “The caldera is defined by a 33 x 24 km semi-elliptical structure that encircles the largest exposures of the Tilzapotla ignimbrite and corresponds to the structural margin rather than the topographic rim. A central uplifted block limited by NW-trending faults is the main indication of a resurgent stage. The caldera structural margin is surrounded by extensive exposures of Cretaceous marine sequences that structurally define a broad elliptical dome (45×35 km) originated in the first stage of the caldera evolution. There is evidence showing that the 34 Ma Tilzapotla ignimbrite represents the climatic event of the caldera collapse.” (Morán-Zenteno et al 1998) This begs the question of how the very large dome feature itself was formed. It covers some 1500 square kilometres to a height more than 1,000 m above the surrounding plains with a total thickness in excess of 800 m. If we make allowances for surface depression and 34 My of erosion, the total volume emitted is in excess of 1,500 cubic kilometres of silicic magma.

The observed absence in the TMVB of the elsewhere omnipresent large explosive calderas is a conundrum. Either they have been masked by the products of subsequent volcanic eruptions and rapid, tropical erosion and still await discovery, or, volcanism in the TMVB is sufficiently different to almost preclude these eruptions. However, the presence of the >500 km3 Amealco caldera, the 15 by 21 km Los Humeros caldera and the 10 km Huichapan Caldera rather points to the former being the case. In order to gain an insight into how very complex Mexican volcanism can be to unravel, at this point I recommend a look at the reconstruction by Diaz & McDowell (page 11); “Figure 7. Volcanic evolution of the Amealco caldera and peripheral volcanoes”. It is unfortunately too large to reproduce here, so please, take a look!

If we turn our attention away from the very largest types of eruptions, there are several large and highly dangerous volcanoes in the Toluca – Mexico City – Puebla area. To the SW of Toluca lies the giant stratovolcano Nevado de Toluca and 50-70 km east and southeast runs the Sierra Nevada mountain range comprised of four major volcanoes:

The 4,680 m a.s.l. high Nevado de Toluca volcano as seen from the city of Toluca, 24 km away. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nevado de Toluca

In the Nahuatl language, “Xinantécatl” means “naked man”. Alternately, the name has been interpretated as “Chicnauhtécatl”, “nine hills” which given the volcano’s appearance seems the likelier. Nevado de Toluca is a composite volcano of late Pleistocene-Holocene age with a calc-alkaline andesitic to dacitic composition. The northern flank of Nevado de Toluca has a relative elevation (prominence) of 2015 m with respect to the Lerma river basin, and its southern flank has a relative elevation of 2900 m with respect to the Ixtapan de la Sal village. The elliptical 1.5 by 2 km wide crater of Nevado de Toluca is breached to the east. The interior holds a dacitic central dome and the remains of two ancient scars, located on the SE and NE flanks of the volcano which are related to the partial collapse of the edifice. Unusually for volcanic lakes, the two crater lakes are alkaline, not acidic.

El Refugio quarry located 15 km northeast of Nevado de Toluca crater showing an exposure of the 37,000 yr B.P. block-and-ash flow deposits (Macías 2007)

Nevado de Toluca was built upon the intersection of three fault systems with NW-SE, NE-SW, and E-W orientations. This structural geometry favoured the formation of coalescent pyroclastic fans that reach all the way to the cities of Toluca and Metepec, 25 km to the NE of the volcano. During the late Pleistocene, the southern flank of Nevado de Toluca collapsed twice, originating debris avalanche deposits that were transformed into debris flows with distance. The scars produced by these collapses have disappeared due to subsequent volcanic activity and glacial erosion. The older flow can be traced to distances up to 35 km from the summit while the younger event near the end of the Pleistocene ( > 40 kA) generated a debris avalanche, the “Pilcaya Debris Flow”, that travelled more than 55 km from the summit. Activity then continued with three very large explosive eruptions – the Lower Toluca Pumice ca. 21,700 yr B.P., the Middle Toluca Pumice ca. 12,100 yr B.P. and the Upper Toluca Pumice ca. 10,500 yr B.P. The pyroclastic deposits of these eruptions are mostly covered by subsequent and “smaller” Plinian eruptions.

The Sierra Nevada Volcanic Range

From north to south, the Sierra Nevada Volcanic Range comprises the volcanoes Tláloc, Telapón, Iztaccíhuatl, and Popocatépetl. Previously, it was considered that volcanic activity began to the north and migrated south but new evidence obtained from previous studies, field reconnaissance and radiometric dating paints a slightly different picture.

During the past 10,000 years, there have been repetitive Plinian eruptions of Popocatépetl including some historic events and the 1994–present eruption, but Holocene activity has not been limited to Popocatepetl alone. 9,000 years ago, Iztaccíhuatl produced the Buenavista dacitic lava flow. As is obvious, magmatism of the Sierra Nevada Volcanic Range has not kept a continuous north to south migrating path as had been previously surmised. Rather, it has shifted back and forth chaotically throughout its evolution.


Volcanism at the Sierra Nevada Volcanic Range likely started 1.8–1.4 Ma years ago with the construction of Paleo-Tláloc volcano, today buried by younger deposits. The activity continued between 1.07 and 0.89 Ma with the emplacement of dacitic domes, lavas and associated pyroclastic flows (“San Francisco” 1 Ma, “Chicoloapan” 0.9 Ma). Then between 0.94–0.84 Ma, the main edifice of modern Tláloc was built up through the emission of dacitic lava flows. Although Popocatépetl took over as the centre of eruptive activity about 320 kA, Tlaloc reawakened with the emission of rhyolitic magma at 129 kA followed by the emplacement of the El Papayo dacite (118 kA) to the south and Téyotl summit lavas (80 kA).

Tlaloc has always been considered the oldest volcano of the Sierra Nevada Volcanic Range (and extinct), but recent field data have revealed that Tlaloc was very active during late Pleistocene with a series of five explosive eruptions at 44, 38, 33, 31, and 25 kA and the growth of the summit dome. One of these eruptions produced the 1.58 km3 (DRE) Multilayered White Pumice (MWP), a rhyolitic pyroclastic sequence that consist of abundant white pumice (up to 96 vol.%), rare gray pumice, cognate lithics, accidental altered lithics, xenocrysts. The pumice clasts contain phenocrysts of quartz, plagioclase, sanidine, biotite, rare Fe–Ti oxides, monazite, zircon and apatite. Xenocrysts are represented by plagioclase, microcline, orthoclase and quartz likely coming from a deeper plutonic body. Both pumices have a rhyolitic composition (74.98 ± 1 wt.% SiO2 in water free basis) which represents one of the most acidic products of Tlaloc and the entire Sierra Nevada Volcanic Range. (Macías 2011)


The inauspicious 260 m high (elevation 3,600 m) steep-sided Cerro Papayo dacitic lava dome marks the vent of the Telapón volcano on the north flank of Iztaccíhuatl formed approximately between 0.38 Ma and 0.34 Ma ago with the emplacement of lava flows and a dome. The 21 cu km compound lava field covers 84 sq km and includes flows that travelled long distances in opposite directions – into the Valley of Mexico and towards the Puebla basin. In addition, the Papayo lavas overlie glacial moraines about 12,000 years old, thus Telapón has been active until the very end of the Pleistocene. The lithology of Telapón shows two periods of activity. First, an andesitic-dacitic Lower Volcanic Event that was emplaced between 1.03 MA and 65 kA, and second, a dacitic-rhyolitic Upper Volcanic Event emplaced between 65 to 35 kA. (Macías 2007).

Photograph of Iztaccihuatl which clearly shows the resemblance to a sleeping woman. (Uncredited photograph, labels added by author)


The name “Iztaccíhuatl” means “White woman” in the Nahuatl language. Linked to the Popocatepetl volcano to the south by the high saddle known as the Paso de Cortés, it is a 5,230 m (1,560 m prominence) dormant volcanic mountain. Despite its relatively modest prominence, the volume is a staggering 450 km3, which is 100 km3 greater than that of Mount Shasta, Oregon. Iztaccíhuatl began its activity ca. 1.1 Ma ago. From then until 0.45 Ma several volcanic edifices were formed. At that date, the Los Pies Recientes cone was devastated by a Mount St. Helens–type event which destroyed the southeastern flank and produced a massive debris avalanche accompanied by large pyroclastic flows.

The summit ridge consists of a series of overlapping cones constructed along a NNW-SSE line to the south of the Pleistocene Llano Grande caldera. Andesitic and dacitic Pleistocene and Holocene volcanism has taken place from vents at or near the summit. Areas near the El Pecho summit vent are covered in flows and tuff beds younger than glaciation approximately 11 kA, yet GVP states that “The Global Volcanism Program is not aware of any Holocene eruptions from Iztaccihuatl.”

The once glacier-covered peak of Popocatépetl stratovolcano rises above Tlamacas to its north in this photograph from 1968. The sharp peak at right is Ventorrillo, the summit of a predecessor to Popocatépetl, the eroded Nexpayantla volcano. (William Melson)


Popocatépetl is the most active volcano in Mexico, having had more than 15 major eruptions since the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 with the most recent in 1947. In Nahuatl, the name means “Smoking Mountain”. Popocatépetl reaches 5,426 m a.s.l. with a prominence of 3,020 m with a base diameter of about 25 km. The crater is elliptical with an orientation northeast-southwest. The walls of the crater vary in height from 600 to 840 m. It lies 70 km southeast of Mexico City and more than one million people live within a radius of 40 km from the summit. According to paleomagnetic studies, the volcano is about 730,000 years old.

Popocatépetl used to be covered by glaciers, but due to increased volcanic activity in the 1990s, the glaciers covering Popocatépetl greatly decreased in size and by 2001 they were gone. Historically, Popocatépetl has erupted predominantly andesitic magma but it has also erupted large volumes of dacite. Magma produced in the current cycle of activity tends to be a mixture of the two.

There are at least four debris avalanche deposits around Popocatépetl volcano. The oldest comes from the failure of the SE flank of Iztaccíhuatl volcano, and the other three come from the flank collapse of paleo-Popocatépetl, the youngest being the 23,000 yr B.P. deposit. The modern volcano was constructed to the south of the late-Pleistocene to Holocene El Fraile cone. Three major Plinian eruptions, the most recent of which took place about 800 AD, have occurred from Popocatépetl since the mid Holocene, accompanied by pyroclastic flows and voluminous lahars that swept through the basins below the volcano.

Some 23,000 years ago a lateral eruption, greater than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, resulted in the lateral collapse of the ancient Popocatépetl cone. The explosion generated a debris avalanche deposit that reached up to 70 km to the South from the summit. The decompression of the magmatic system caused a lateral blast that emplaced a pyroclastic surge deposit accompanied by a Plinian eruption column which deposited a thick pumice-fall layer on the southern flanks of the volcano. The column then collapsed and formed an ash flow that charred everything in its path. The deposit reached up to 70 km from the summit, covers an area of 900 km2, and if we assign an average thickness of 15 m, a volume of 9 km3 is obtained. This deposit overlies paleosoil that contains charred logs radiocarbon dated at 23,445 ± 210 yr. Disseminated charcoal found in the ash flow deposit yielded an age of 22,875 +915/−820 yr. (Macías)

During the past 20,000 yr the explosive activity of Popocatépetl has been characterized by four major events (14,000, 5000, 2150, and 1100 BP) and four minor events (11,000, 9000, 7000 and 1800 BP) The events that occurred at 5000 and 1100 BP had a similar evolution. They began with hydromagmatic explosions that dispersed wet pyroclastic surges up to 20 km from the summit. These explosions opened the magmatic conduit, decompressed the magmatic system, and formed >25-km-high Plinian column.

From our perspective, it is of interest to note that the last three Plinian eruptions of Popocatépetl coincide with three important events in Mesoamerican history: The 3195–2830 B.C. eruption coincides with the 3114 BC beginning of the Mesoamerican Calendar. The 215 BC eruption coincides with the transition from the Preclassic to the Classic period. The last major eruption, which probably occurred in 823 AD, coincides with the Classic-Postclassic periods transition.

The Parque Nacional El Tepozteco is at the centre of the Chichinautzin volcanic field. It consists of a small temple to the Aztec god Tepoztecatl, a god of the alcoholic pulque beverage. (unearthingarchaeoblog)

The Chichinautzin Volcanic Field

The Chichinautzin volcanic field contains more than 220 Pleistocene to Holocene monogenetic vents and covers a 90-km-long, E-W-trending area immediately south of Mexico City. It is formed primarily of overlapping small cinder cones and shield volcanoes with a mainly basaltic-andesitic to andesitic composition with a thrachytic component as well as some dacite evident. The highest peak of the Sierra Chichinautzin is the Volcán Ajusco lava-dome complex at 3930 m a.s.l. There have been at least eight eruptions within the past 10,000 years with the most recent about 1670 radiocarbon years ago (~340 AD) from the Xitle scoria cone. These eruptions have typically been VEI 3 with one registered as a VEI 4. A very modest estimate based on an oval 60 x 90 km with an average emplaced height of 250 m yields a figure of 1,050 cubic km for the volume of the dome but the true figure could be more than double that. From the list of sources in the GVP entry for the Chichinautzin volcanic field, it would seem that some individual cones, vents and flows have been studied, but not the feature as a whole. What is it? What is its true age? Why is it so large, far larger than the initial shield deposited during the first development stage before volcanism shifts to construct (a series of) stratovolcanic edifices? Is there a significance to its position on the same isoline above the subduction zone as Pico de Orizaba, Popocatépetl and Nevado de Toluca?

Summing up

The geological setting of the Mexico City basin is unusual in that the subduction zone makes an almost 90-degree angle and that the major volcanoes do not follow the subduction zone but rather form lines at right angles to it. Instead of showing a neat progression, volcanic activity has been shown to jump “chaotically” (Macías 2011) both geographically as well as petrologically. There is a marked absence of identified caldera structures in the area, yet in the middle of it, right at the southern edge of the city limits, lies a more than 1,000 km3 large Pleistocene to Holocene dome structure that has been active until recently, one that is not well studied.

In addition to this, the Nevado de Toluca volcano has already produced eruptions sufficiently large to deposit ignimbrites at distances greater than 25 km from its summit and Popocatépetl clearly has the potential to do so. Both these volcanoes (and Iztaccihuatl) have suffered several major edifice collapses where deposits have been traced to distances greater than 55 and 70 km respectively.

With almost 30 million people living within 100 km, Mexico City will remain on our list until the mysteries of why the “currently and recently active” volcanoes of the TMVB align perpendicular to the subduction zone as well as where and why the very large, caldera-forming eruptions (VEI 6 to 7) have disappeared to have been unravelled. It will remain on our list until we have a thorough investigation of the past and likely future evolution of the gigantic Chichinautzin volcanic field as well as a better understanding of the risks posed by the large stratovolcanoes in the vicinity.

The more I delved into this subject, the more intricate it became and the more I realised just how little I understood. The TMVB as it passes the Toluca – Mexico City – Puebla area once fully investigated may well deserve a place higher up on the list (or possibly even be struck from it), but with the material and understanding at present, we will leave it at a provisional fifth place on our list.


Today in Geological History – April 18th; San Fran Earthquake


The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is often know as one of the United States worst natural disatsers along side Hurrican Katrina. The Mg 7.9 earthquake dwarfed the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in every way.

Figure 1. Fires raged through the Bay area.

At 5.12am residents of the San Francisco Bay Area were awoken by a strong foreshocks. Just 25 seconds later a rupture over 470 kilometres long tore through the northern end of the San Andreas fault. The intense shaking demolished buildings and burst through gas mains causing multiple fires.  Early estimates put the death toll at 700 directly from the quake, but it is thought as many as 3000 people lost their lives in all.

Figure 2. Buildings crumbled under the pressure of the waves.

Poorly constructed buildings just crumbled under the force of the tremor while many others were destroyed in the widespread fires. The situation was made worse by the fact insurers had no policies which covered earthquake damage at the time, so people who had already lost everything deliberately started fires claiming they were caused by the gas leaks. Over 28,000 people were left homeless. It took over five days to put out fires across the county and the damage was estimated at over $400 million. Being in a wealthy stay in San Francisco recovered relatively quickly although some people remained in tempory shelters for over a year. Homes and businesses were rebuilt with stronger building codes put in place; old, wooden Victorian homes were replaced with brick and concrete so that future fires can’t ravage the area as they had. 

Figure 3. Tectonic setting of the San Andreas Fault and its last three major earthquakes.

An important outcome of the earthquake was awareness was raised to the danger posed by the San Andreas Fault. The highly active fault line runs throughout the state of California through many metropolitan areas, and although the residents were used to the odd tremor, few thought it could release something so violent. The transform fault runs roughly 1300 km down the west coat of the United States where the Pacific plate is sliding northwestwards in relation to the North American Plate. Although at the time the process of plate tectonics was not know, the magnitude of the quake and size of the displacement incorraged people to question more the Earth’dynamics. 

The San Andreas fault experiences hundreds of earthquakes yearly, although few much over a magnitude 4. At least one over a magnitude 6 appears to occur ever 20 or so years. In 2008 Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF) estimated that the probability of an M ≥ 6.7 earthquake within the next 30 years on the northern and southern segments of the San Andreas fault is somewhere between 21% and 59%, respectively. There seems to be no question of ‘if’ this will occur again but ‘when’ and ‘where’. 

California’s population has grown tremulously in recent decades and the fault cuts through several major cities including San Fransico, Los Angeles and San Diego. If the next ‘Big One’ were to hit such a densely populated area the consequences could be dier. However awareness is the state is high, Hollywood film “San Andreas” even hits screens next month. For now all we can do is be prepared and hope for the best.

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Today in Geological History; 17th January – Northridge and Nyiragongo


The Northridge Earthquake 1994

At 4.30 am local time, the residents of the San Fernando Valley region of L.A were awoken by a shallow magnitude 6.7 earthquake. It is estimated to be one of the most costly natural disasters the state has faced causing up to 40 billon US dollars and killed over 60 people.

The earthquake struck along a fault line which was previously unknown off, the Northridge blind thrust fault. It produced the highest ever recorded ground motions at the time and literally threw many buildings off their foundations. It sparked greater mapping of the L.A fault systems so places could be better prepared for further destructive quakes in the future.

Some of the most dramatic pictures of the destruction came from the many freeways and interstates which suffered structural failure and/or collapse.

One of the most unusual outcomes of this earthquake was the outbreak of coccidioimycosis, or more commonly known as Valley fever. There were over 200 cases reported in the weeks after the quake and 3 fatalitites. Valley fever is a respiratory disease brought on by airborne spores of fungus. It is thought that landslides caused by the earthquake sent a cloud of the spores in the the air which the wind carried to surrounding areas.


Nyiragongo 2002

After months of increased activity at the stratovolcano in the DRC, a 13 km fissure opened along the southern flank of Nyiragongo in a matter of hours. The fissure reached all the way down to the town of Goma and Lake Kivu.

Over 400,000 people were evacuated from Goma and the surrounding area, many across the border to Rwanda. Despite these efforts 147 were killed, mainly from asphyxiation and some from collapsing buildings from volcanic tremors. About 4,500 buildings were destroyed in Goma and two-thirds of its airport left unusable as lava devoured the run ways.

When the flows reached Lake Kivu, due to the high gas emissions, a new fear was put in place. Similar to events at Lake Nyos 1986, there was a chance that the high emissions of carbon dioxide and methane could be stored in the lake waters and released lethal limnic eruption. Although this was not the case there have been numerous cases in the area around Nyrigongo of particularly children dying from asphyxiation due to random degassing of the volcano. An experimental syphon was put in place in 2001 to try to limit the amount of gas in the bottom waters, but it was not untill 2004 when an energy company wanted to harness the gas as a resource, did any really system come in to place to limit the risk of limnic eruption.

Nyrigongo is one of the 17 decade volcanoes, ones believed to pose greatest risk to human life. Caused by a mixture of rifting and hot spot activity, unlike many volcanoes of its kind, its lavas have an extreamly low silica content. Predominately melilite nephelinite, instead if more common more common basalts, it is extreamly fluid and can reach speed on average of 100 km/ph. It has also had a near constantlty active lava lake giving us the gentle reminder that it can fatally burst to life at any time.


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Comparing Past and Present


Over the last 12 months we have seen some amazing eruptions, felt the Earth shake on numerous occasions, and remembered some historic events. But was the active of 2014, both volcanically and seismically, more than any other year? I have read several spam articles recently, scare mongering that fracking has trebled earthquake numbers, God’s wrath has been shown by volcanic eruptions and even one drunken woman tried to tell me that Japans tectonic misfortune is due to the Pearl Harbor attack!

Lava field at Holuhraun, Iceland September 2nd 2014.

1. Lava field at Holuhraun, Iceland September 2nd 2014.

Now straight away I can assure you that karma or religious intervention has nothing to do with the science behind the mechanics of the planet beneath our feet. Fracking is up for debate and its effects on seismicity although even were proven the effects are still negligible. So has 2014 really been worse than previous?


I found quiet a nice table to demonstrate this one courtesy of Wikipedia.

Number of Earthquakes Worldwide for 2004–2014

  Magnitude Ranging


 2004  2005  2006  2007  2008  2009  2010  2011  2012  2013  2014
8.0–9.9 2 1 2 4 0 1 1 1 2 2 1
7.0–7.9 14 10 9 14 12 16 21 19 15 17 11
6.0–6.9 141 140 142 178 168 144 151 204 129 125 144
5.0–5.9 1515 1693 1712 2074 1768 1896 1963 2271 1412 1402 1577
4.0–4.9 10888 13918 12838 12080 12292 6805 10164 13303 10990 9795 14941
Total 12560 15762 14703 14350 14240 8862 12300 15798 12548 11341 16674

2014 actually had the lowest number of strong, magnitude 7 and above earthquakes then in the past 5 years. On the flip side of this we had many more lower magnitude  4-5.9 giving us the highest total of quakes in the past 10 years by about 900 earthquakes. 2009 actually is the strangest year on this list with a good 4000 less earth quakes of any magnitude than any other year. 2007 also stands out with an exceptional number of stronger earthquakes. It could be theorized that the greater release of stress and strain with in the crust during 2007 gave us a quiet period the following years. All though this is a very short time scale it does show that yearly variation is great.

625 people were killed in earthquakes last year with most of these during August 3rd’s Ludian County earthquake in China. 6 lost their lives in the strongest quake of the year in Iquique, Chile which was mg 8.2. Nicaragua and Papua New Guinea also had one fatality each. This is actually quiet low value with over 1500 loosing their lives the previous year or as high as nearly 300,000 in 2004!

Uplift caused by Mg 8.2 Chile Earthquake.

2. Uplift caused by Mg 8.2 Chile Earthquake.


2014 was a pretty explosive year with Sinabung kicking us off with a bang January 3rd as it has done this year. In February the same volcano killed 11 as people began to cross the exclusion zones to take a closer look after the pyrotechnics the month previous.

Bárðarbunga stole the show over the summer. The sleeping giant started a ‘will it, won’t it’ game months before any real activity started in August. Many feared we would see an Eyjafjallajökull 2010 style explosion that would disrupt air traffic at the height of the summer period. Earthqaukes then began to indicate magma was on the move through a dyke heading north-west from the main vent. New fears struck as experts wondered would we see devastation similar to Laki 1783. August 29th saw the start of a large fissure breaking the surface, although it has not reached the status of Laki, the eruption is still continuing today

3. San Miguel

3. San Miguel


The next lot a fatalities happened when Mount Ontake surprised all with a phreatic blast on September 27th. 57 lost their lives as hikers and tourists where making their way to a shrine on the mountains flank.

Fogo was the volcano to cause chaos in the final month of the year forcing thousands from their homes. Media coverage of this even has been so light on this event, I am unable to find precise news to if the eruption is ongoing. At December 23rd lava was still pouring from the Pico vent and destroying all in its path.

Obviously these are but a few of the hundreds of volcanoes rumbling through 2014. Others include; Colinma, Etna, Aire, Asonsan, Manam, Merapi, Popcatepetl, Shishaldin, Cleveland, Sabancaya, Zhupanovsky, Sheveluch, Santa Maria, Mayon, Dukono, Turrialba, Poas, Fuego, Ubinas, Tungurahua, Reventador, Pacaya, Karymsky, Kelut, Stromboli, San Miguel, Pavlof, Chirpoi and even all that does not cover them all!

But is this more than usual?

In terms of lava output, last year is definitely high up there as we saw several huge effusive eruptions(with Bárðarbunga probably producing more material than most others put together!). However in the grand scheme of things there were few other major events.

68 people lost their lives which is relatively high thinking that on average maybe one or two die yearly unless there are major volcanic events, but then when thinking like that 68 is actually extremely low.

If we were to pull out any year for increased volcanic activity, for me it would have to be the events of 1902. In a list compiled by Wikipedia* of the most deadly eruptions, although none of the top 5 occurred in 1902, 4 in the list of 40 that occurred did, meaning 10% of the most fatal eruptions occurred in the one year. Well over 40,000 were killed over these four eruptions.

4. Somber scene after Mount Pelee eruption May 8th 1902.

4. Somber scene after Mount Pelee eruption May 8th 1902.

Just over 30,000 of these deaths were caused by Mount Pelee, Martinque on May 8th. Just hours before, La Soufriere a few islands away on Saint Vincent killed 1680.

There will always be years there is more geologically activity than others. The Earth is like a living breathing organism; it is ever-changing and adapting, this is part of the reason predicting events can be tricky.  People always look to blame or find meaning behind tragedy, it’s a coping mechanism, but rarely leads to scientific truth.

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Finally back, and the Earth has not been as quiet as this blog!


Work, uni, a 7 year old, Christmas and life in general has made posting near in possible the past month or so. The volcanoes around the world have been just as busy as I, so here’s a quick summery;


Yes this blogs most talked about lava field is still growing. A press release from the Icelandic MetOffice states the lava flow now covers in excess of 80 cubic kilometres.


Seismicity continues throughout the length of the dyke and within the Bardarbunga caldera albeit at a reduced rate then earlier in the eruption. Subsidence in the caldera has reached 56 meters in depth, and roughly 1.7 cubic kilometre. Gas emissions continue with elevated pollution warnings still in place through much of Iceland.

On the 29th December the fissure eruption will have been consistent for 4 months, although activity is not as great as in the earlier stages, the eruption shows no indication that the end is in sight.


The June 27th lava flow is still on the move at roughly 300 yards a day. The flow front currently sits less than half a mile away from Pahoa Marketplace where many of the businesses have had to close due to the on coming threat.


Sections of the flow have been made available, first for students and journalists, and now public to see the lava up close. Eruptions also continue at Kilauea’s summit and East Rift Zone.

Pico Do Fogo

Follow recent events on the Cape Verde island of Fogo has really triggered an anger inside of me in recent weeks and this eruption will have its own post soon after this one is published. However for a brief over view, Pico do Fogo begain eruption back on November 23rd. Since lava flows have devoured local villages forcing over 1500 to flee their homes. Gas and ash emissions have nearly ceased and lava output is now low, although remaining buildings in the village of Bangaeira are still being engulfed by the flow.

Nevado del Ruiz

This Colombian volcano caused one of the greatest natural disasters of the 1980’s. Seismicity has picked up since December 3rd inducing an increased aviation code to yellow. Ash emissions have been sporadic, with a white plume drifting almost 20 km south on December 15th.


During 9-16 December white plumes were occasionally observed rising from Mayon’s crater and drifted WNW and WSW, sometimes downslope. Three volcanic earthquakes were recorded on 9 December and one was recorded on 11 December. Alert Level remained at 3 causing PHIVOLCS to remind residents of the 6-km-radius Permanent Danger Zone (PDZ) around the volcano and the 7-km Extended Danger Zone (EDZ) on the SE flank due to recent rockfalls and threat of eruption.


The Tokyo VAAC reported that on 14 December an explosion at Suwanosejima produced a plume that rose to an altitude of 1.8 km (6,000 ft) and drifted SE.


Eruptions at Sinabung have continued and pyroclastic flows and emissions seem to have increased in intensity mid December. Ash plumes have risen in excess of 20,000 ft up to December 16th.


Poor weather conditions have meant little visual conformation of the Aleutian Island volcano, however due to increased seismicity it is believed that low level lava flows continue from previous weeks. The aviation code remains at orange.

This is just a small sample of the list of volcanic activity in recent weeks, for further updates visit the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program;

Kilauea Update


The June 27th lava flow is still advancing putting homes in lower Puna at risk. As of Saturday morning the front of the flow was 1.4 miles up slope from Apa’s road and has advance roughly 100 meters since. The lighter vegetation above the road ignited quickly as the lava advanced causing the first bush fire since the flow began in June. Smoke conditions have been moderate to heavy, with most of the smoke is being dispersed to Puna and Hilo. Work is being carried out on Railroad Avenue and Government Beach Road so they are able to accommodate traffic if the lava crossed highway 130.

1. Map of flow as of 20/09/14

The USGS HVO and the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense have been working closely to monitor the flow and advise local resident accordingly.An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 cubic meters (55,000–92,000 gallons per minute) of lava are being erupted each day how ever the flow rate has been fluctuating over the past week or so, slowing since Sunday.

Further information can be gathered at the Kilauea page of the HVO web site;


Hawaiian State of Emergency; Kilauea


On September 4th, a state of emergency was issued for Kilauea, with residents to the north east of the volcano being urged to finalize evacuation plans. Kilauea is one of, if not the, most active volcanoes on Earth. Sat above the Hawaiian mantle plume, it has been in a constant state of eruption since January 3rd 1983!

On June 27th this year, a new lava flow began from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater and has been advancing steadily in an east north easterly direction heading towards the Kaohe Homesteads subdivision. As of yesterday evening the front of the flow was roughly 13.2 km (8.2 miles) from the vent and 1.4 km (0.9 miles) from the eastern boundary of the Wao Kele o Puna forest reserve.

Map of the new lava flow at Kilauea as of September 3, 2014. Image Credit: USGS.

Sine early July the flow has been pushing forward roughly 800 feet per day and is believed to able to reach the residential area in the next few days.

When the alert was issued, Mayor Billy Kenoi added “We are taking this step to ensure our residents have time to prepare their families, their pets and their livestock for a safe and orderly evacuation from Kaohe in the event the flow continues to advance.”

Figure 1. Map highlighting lava flow Accessed 07/0914