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Today in Geological History; June 15th – Mount Pinatubo 1991

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Figure .1 Mount Pinatubo 1991

Before the eruption in the early 90’s, Pinatubo was a rather unassuming mountain on the island of Luzon, Philippines. Standing only 2000 ft above surrounding peaks, it was almost obscured from vision. It’s flanks covered in lush green forest, without an eruption in memorable history, people never saw it as a threat.  This change in June 1991 when it produced the second largest eruption of the 20th century (after Novarupta 1912).

Figure 2. Damage from the earthquake in 1990.

In 1990, on July 16th a magnitude 7.8 rocked the island of Luzon. A strike-slip along the Philippine Fault System it caused a surface rupture oer 125 km long. Killing  over a thousand people it became the deadliest earthquake in Philippine history but may also have been the start of something much greater, geologists have long been convinced that it is linked to Pinatubo’s activity the following year. However it has never been proven if this earthquake stirred the sleeping volcano or if the reawakening caused the quake. For a few weeks after locals reported steam coming from Pinatubo, but when it was visited by PHILVOLC’s scientists there was only landslide evidence and not emissions.

Seismicity kicked off activity again on March 15th 1991. The north-west side of the volcano felt a swarm of tremors increasing in intensity over the next two weeks. On April 2nd a 1.5 km fissure opened along the summit with phreatic explosions dusting the local area in ash. seismicity continued to increase causing volcanologist to rush to its flanks to place monitoring equipment they had never thought to place while the mountain lay in slumber. The volcanoes eruptive history had very been studied before and they were surprise to learn it had large eruptions as recent as roughly 500, 3500 and 5500 years ago. On April 7th the first formal evacuations took place. With the Clark Air base just 14 km from Pinatubo the USGS aided PHILVOLCS in setting up 3 zones the first, a 10 km radius from the summit was the initial area to be designated unsafe and people were quickly evacuated to safety. Further zones from 10-20 km and 20-40 km were deemed safe for now but people were told to be alert to the possibility of evacuation if the mountain showed any sign of getting worse.

Figure 3.

Activity stepped up in May with sulfur dioxide emissions rocketing from roughly 500 t p/d at the beginning of the month to over 5000 t p/d by May 28th. At this point emission slightly decreased and inflation began to increase rapidly leading many to believe pressure was building with the magma chamber.

On June 3rd the first lava was noticed signalling that a magmatic phase of the eruption had begun which eased some people’s mind as activity seemed relatively effusive. The first large explosion cam four days later on June 7th. An eruption column towered 7 km above the summit prompting the second wave of evacuations with people in the 10-20 km zone being prompted to leave their homes. A lava dome began to grow dramatically in the next few days reaching in excess of 600 ft wide. Activity seemed pretty constant at a low-level until 03:41 on June 12th when a new, more violent phase of eruptions began. As explosions intensified over the next few hours the eruption column grew to over 19 km. Pyroclastic flows surged as 4km from the summit in some valleys. Ash and tephra rained down on the surrounding area as the intense explosions lasted over  . The final wave of evacuations was called for on the morning of June 13th as a small but intense earthquake swarm saw in a third phase in the eruption.

Figure 4. On of the most iconic images from the 1991 eruption.

People as far as 40 km away, and even further if possible, were urged to leave the area as quickly and calmly as possibly as Pinatubo showed no signs of slowly down its activity. The column peaked again, this time over 24 km high. Several more large explosions were recorded for the next 24 hours including one at lunch time on the 14th with saw another 21 km eruption column and more pyroclastic flows obscuring the view of the flanks.

From midday on June 15th the eruption reached its most climatic point. By 2.30 pm on the June 15th readings stopped being received from seismometers and other remote censoring equipment which the USGS had placed at Clark Air base indicating the area had been over some by the pyroclastic material still being ejected at a terrifying rate. An ash cloud covered an area greater than 125,000 km2 bringing near total darkness to much of the island of Luzon and ashfall was recorded as far as neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam. By 10.30pm that night all fell quiet and Pinatubo’s fury seemed to be over.

Figure 5. Mapping the spread of the SO2 released by Pinatubo.

The VEI 6 eruption spat out over 10,000,000,000 tonnes of material and a whopping 17,000,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide. It was the later which signed Pinatubo’s fate in people’s minds as the SO2 emitted quickly covered the globe causing the mean global temperatures to drop by 0.5°C for the following two years. Sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere reflects the Sun’s radiation back in to space meaning the Earth’s surface received up to 10% less sunlight in the following year. It also meant an increase in ozone damage, with the hole above the Antarctic being at the largest it had ever been.

An estimated 847 people lost their lives (many from collapsing buildings under the weight of the ashfall),but problems continued past initial fatalities in the aftermath. Over 2.1 million people have believed to have been affected by the disaster. Agriculture was severely effected both my ash fall and then following effects of the climate. Lahars plagued the region for years after with each heavy rain fall. It is often put by the end of 1992 the eruption and resulting lahars caused the country losses in excess of 400 million US dollars.

Despite this, the events of 1991 are often hailed a volcanological triumph with quick responses, prediction and evacuation believed to have saved the lives of thousands. It enabled us to gain an insight to volcanic impacts on climate and how we monitor the risks.

Figure 1. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/welltraveled/features/2012/tempting_fate_in_the_philippines_/dennis_rodman_s_dad_and_the_eruption_of_mount_pinatubo_.html

Figure 2. http://xuwenewegu.webatu.com/earthquake-in-philippines-july-25-2011.php

Figure 3. http://www.coolgeography.co.uk/GCSE/AQA/Restless%20Earth/Volcanoes/Mount%20Pinatubo.htm

Figure 4. https://www.uclm.es/profesorado/egcardenas/pa.htm

Figure 5. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=1510

Today in Geological History; June 10th – Tarawera

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Today marks the 130th anniversary of Tarawera bursting back to life after 500 years of sleep. It was one of New Zealand’s largest eruptions in recent history and killed up to 150 people making it the countries most deadly since the arrival of the Europeans.

Members of Te Arawa hapu Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi will, weather permitting, make their annual pilgramage to the top of Mt Tarawera today for the 130th anniversary of the eruption.  Photo/File

Tarawara was last active in 1315 and is believed to have had a great hand in the Great Famine of 1315-137 throughout Europe. In 1886 the mountain gave little warning of up coming events. On June 1st a series of waves were recorded on the surface of Lake Tarawera suggesting seismicity in the area although no one reported feeling quakes and there where no seismometers at this time. Tourists claimed they saw a phantom canoe floating across the waters with Maori warriors on board. Although there were multiple accounts on the sighting many believed it was simply a rogue wave caused by increased seismicity, tribal elders at Te Wairoa however claimed that it was a waka wairua (spirit canoe) and was a portent of doom.

Charles-Blomfield-Mount-Tarawera-in-eruption-June-10-1886.jpgAll was quiet again in the following days and people though little of the complex. Many geologists at the time didn’t even consider the edifice to be active due to the lack of solfataric or fumarolic activity in comparison to New Zealand’s other volcanoes.

At 2am local time on June 10th this all changed. Locals where awoken by large tremors shortly followed by explosions heard as far away as Blenheim over 500 km to the south. by 2.30 all three peaks of Tarawera were eruption with fire fountains lighting up the pitch black, ash filled skies. The eruption began to the northeast side and spread rapidly along a fissure from Tarawera to Lake Rotomahana into the Waimangu Valley. The eruption was believed to be caused by a series of basaltic dikes which rose from depth and intersected the very active hydrothermal system under Tarawera and Lake Rotomahana, causing rapid steam/magma explosions, driving the plume that was observed and creating, by some accounts, fire fountains as tall as 2 km which explains the high explosively of a basaltic eruption.

The darkened skys were seen as far as Christchurch and was catapulted in the stratosphere where it lingered effecting climate for at least a year. The ash fall from the eruption – called locally the “Rotomahana Mud” – can be found into the Bay of Plenty almost 40 km away. This tephra covered 15,000 km2 over the North Island and over 4,500 km2 of the area with at least 5 cm of tephra.

The eruption itself produced at least 1.3 km3 of tephra (~0.7 km3 of dense rock equivalent), likely at a rate of higher than 6 x 104 m3/s. It also produced a base surge that travelled over 6 km from the craters moving 40 m/s and were large enough to top hills that were 360 meters tall which buried several Maori villages.

The Buried Village Rotorua

The Buried Village Rotorua is now a popular tourist destination often branded New Zealand’s answer to Pompeii. As well as the human impacts it also buried the Pink and White Terraces.

 

 

Figure 1; http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11653679

Figure 2;  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1886_eruption_of_Mount_Tarawera#/media/File:Charles-Blomfield-Mount-Tarawera-in-eruption-June-10-1886.jpg

Figure 3; http://www.visualitineraries.com/VisitPoint.asp?location=419&title=Rotorua+Museum+of+Art+%26+History

Figure 4; http://www.nzonline.org.nz/nzo/business/the-buried-village-of-te-wairoa-rotorua

 

 

Today in Geological History; June 3rd – The 25th Anniversary of Unzen

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen which claimed the lives of 43 people.

Mount Unzen

Mount Unzen is actually several over lapping volcanoes on Japan’s island of Kyushu. It was the cause of Japan’s largest ever volcanic disaster in 1792 when a lava domed collapsed and caused a mega tsunami which killed nearly 15,000 people. After this even the volcano lay silent until beginning to stir in 1989.

Seismic swarms began in the November of 89 about 10 km west of the summit and gradually migrated eastward until the first phreatic eruption a full year later in November 1990. By May 20th 1991 fresh lava began to flow from the highly inflated summit area prompting the evacuation of almost 12,000 locals.

volcano-unzenThe threat of another eruption to the scale of 1792 brought journalists and scientists alike flocking to the surrounding area to monitor the activity of Unzen and its potential threat. Sadly this curiosity resulted in the deaths of 43 when on June 3rd activity peaked due to a possible lava dome collapse. This sent a huge pyroclastic flow surging down its flanks and funnelled in to a valley point in the direction where volcanologists and journalists had set up a base at what was thought to be a safe distance, over 4.5 km, from the summit.

Activity continued well in to 1995 and over 10,000 pyroclastic flows were recorded over this period. By the end of the eruption a new lava dome was in place 1.2 by 8 km wide. Its volume was approximated at 0.1 cubic km.  In total, about 0.21 cubic km of plagioclase-phyric dacite magma was erupted over the course of the eruption at peak effusive rates of 7 cubic metres per second in 1991. Over 2000 buildings were destroyed by these flows in Shimabara City alone. Matters were further complicated between August 1992 and July 1993 when heavy rains caused multiple lahars destroying a further 1300 homes along the Mizunashi and Nakao Rivers, requiring the sudden evacuation of several thousand residents.

Mount Unzen has been placed on the official decade volcano list and is one of Japan’s most highly monitored areas.

Maurice and Katia Krafft

The Krafft’s were French volcanologists and soul mates who met at the University of Strasbourg. Their love for volcanology almost reviled their love for each other. The specialized in documenting eruptions as best and often as close as possible, their end was almost inevitable.

Their most famed contribution was the documentation of Nevado del Ruiz which when shown to the Phillipine president Corazon Aquino who was then convinced to evacuate the area surrounding Mount Pinatubo before its catastrophic 1991 eruption almost certainly saving hundreds if not thousands of lives. 

Over a 20 year period, when volcanology was still a relativity young science, the married couple documented hundred of eruptions. They fillmed over 300 hours of footage, took thousands of photos and published multiple books.

While in the Philippines during Pinatubo’s early stages, Maurice was interviewed by a local news agency where he told the journalist  “I am never afraid, because I have seen so much eruptions in 23 years that even if I die tomorrow I don’t care.” From here they flew out to Japan where activity was picking up at Unzen. The pair perished together when they were overcome by the pyroclastic flow on June 3rd.

Harry Glicken

Man wearing a coat and hat and holding a pad of paper sits on a rock , with a lake and several mountains visible in the backgroundHarry was an American volcanologist who although was based at USGS was funded by outside organisations. He specialised in volcanic debris flows and was closely involved with research on St Helens with his doctoral thesis ‘Rockslide-debris Avalanche of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens Volcano, Washington‘ being recognised as a leading paper on the event.

Glicken cheated death on St Helens as he was meant to be the volcanologist on duty May 18th however swapped with his then mentor David Johnston who was killed by the blast.

Figure 1; http://raredelights.com/top-28-worlds-important-volcanoes/mount-unzen-in-japan/

Figure 2; https://curiousmatters.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/curious-facts-31-of-the-strongest-volcanoes-known-to-man/

Figure 3; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Unzen

Figure 4; https://volcanogeek.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/maurice-and-katia-a-love-story/

Figure 5; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Glicken

Figure 6; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cvjwt9nnwXY

 

 

 

 

Today in Geological History – March 27th; The Great Alaskan Earthquake

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The second strongest earthquake ever recorded occurred at 5.36 pm AST (3.46 am 28/03 UTC) on Good Friday in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Registering a massive 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, it shook the region for 4 and a half minutes and generating a tsunami which propagated through out the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Plate moves northward and subducts under the North American plate along the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean creating a highly seismic zone and the explosive volcanics of the Aleutian Islands. On March 27th 1964 the Pacific Plate jolted forward in a megathrust earthquake causing major vertical and horizontal displacement in an area spanning over 250,000  km

At the time of the earthquake Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics was only just being proven by surveys of the worlds oceans. Although the study of seismology and the several large subduction earthquakes which happened in this era helped prove the theory it meant little was understood about the mechanics of megathrust earthquakes (a termed created in the wake of the Great Alaskan Quake). Earthquake resilient building standards where  at the time and all where unprepared for  the events of the Easter weekend.

At a depth of just 23 km the focus was just 125 km northwest of the states capital Anchorage which took most of the damage.It hit a high of XI on the Mercalli Intensity scale, the second highest mark, indicating the intensity of the shaking experienced in the area. The shaking tore apart buildings and subsidence ripped apart roads. Anchorage was built on sandy bluffs and clay, the earthquake caused a landslide which buried 75 homes. The control tower at Anchorage International airport was reduced to rubble.

139 people lost there lives, mainly due to the tsunami which badly hit much of the Alaskan coastline but also claimed lives as far away as Crescent City, California where 12 were killed. At its maximum the tsunami reached as high as 220 ft in Shoup Bay, but most were much smaller. Alaska was actually hit by multiple tsunami, one caused by the earthquake itself and then several local smaller waves up to hours later prolonging the suffering and hampering rescue operations.

The Great Alaskan Earthquake changed much of our understanding of the sheer power of our planet, which rang like a bell with vibrations for days after. Waterways as far south as Texas sloshed from side to side as the seismic waves where felt throughout the continent.

USGS worked quickly to collect data, recording the subsidence and uplift in the region. They began to see how secondary faults accommodated the erratic displacement. They also began to form a much clearer picture of the Aleutian Trench where the Pacific Plate subducts cementing the idea of plate tectonics. It also shone light on the major part soil liquefaction had in the destruction of the area. Core samples taken along the Copper River indicated that the Good Friday was not the first megathrust event in the area. Analyzing just 50 ft cores scientists revealed evidence of 9 megathrust earthquakes in the past 5,500 years.

The events of March 27th lead to the USGS beginning installation of an extensive earthquake-monitoring network across Alaska as part of the Advanced National Seismic System. In 1966 the National Earthquake Information Center was established as apart of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and was transferred to USGS control in 1973. By 1977 Congress passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act, the world was beginning to take the threat seriously.

Figure 1; https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theoildrum.com%2Fnode%2F8573&psig=AFQjCNHCK3Uk0lxyjJZhA8t2fmQn_Kq8iQ&ust=1459094529661721

Figure 2; http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/alaska1964/

Figure 3; http://www.wired.com/2009/07/tsunami/

 

Today in Geological History; March 11th – Tōhoku Earthquake & Tsunami

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article-0-0D924D9F000005DC-785_964x591.jpgI am pretty sure I have covered this event before but seeing as today marks the 5 year anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in the past decade I thought it deserves a much more in depth look. The events of March 11th destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and claimed the lives of nearly 20,000. For me, it opened my eyes to a world of geohazards and mad me realized this was something I wanted to study and understand so such loss of life would not happen again.

There are three elements to the events of March 11th that I am going to look at here; the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima power plant. Each aspect a huge disaster in on there own but interlinked as they were caused devastation for Japan. 

The Earthquake

Instrumental Intensity Image

Japan is a volcanic island which stretches along where the North American, Pacific, Eurasian and Philippine plates all collide at different points. It is a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the world’s most tectonically active area. Practically all of our planets largest and most destructive earthquakes occur along the ring, one of which rocked the east coast of Japan at 2.46 pm JST (5.46am UTC) on March 11th 2011.

The magnitude 9 quake struck at the shallow depth of just 32 km roughly 70 km off the Oshika Peninsular. The area was already alert to seismic activity as several large foreshocks had occurred in the run up including a Mg 7.2 on March 9th and followed by three more above a Mg 6. Of course no one knew these were precursors to something much larger…

Initial reports from JMA and USGS put the March 11th quake at a 7.9 but this had risen first to a 8.8 and then to a 9 before most of the seismic waves had even hit Tokyo 373 km away. Luckily thanks to Japans intense seismic network the countries capital had at least 80 seconds warning before they felt the strong shaking.

The megathrust earthquake occurred where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the North America Plate. The Pacific Plate moves at a relative speed of roughly 9 mm per year but it is not a smooth decent, tension can build and release in a large snap causing an earthquake. On March 11th this happened in epic style causing over ~50 meters of displacement near the Japan Trench which caused the tsunami which swept across the Sendai planes. The earthquake was so powerful that up to 1.69 meters of co-seismic deformation has permanently altered our planet and affected the Earths tilt shaving 1.8 microseconds of the day (not that we would ever notice!)

It was the forth largest earthquake ever recorded and the largest ever to strike Japan.

The Tsunami 

The displacement on the sea bed in turn caused a huge displacement of water in the Pacific ocean its self. Across a 180 km stretch there was recorded up thrust of 6-8 meters. Above the rupture the tsunami waves would have looked like no more than ripples on the surface radiating out across the ocean. It is as the waves reach the continental shelf and the water is forced upwards that they begin to take on their characteristic ‘wall of water’ appearance.
At its maximum height (recorded at Miyako, Iwate) the waves hit 40.5 m high (133 ft). The Pacific has the most comprehensive tsunami warning systems in the world but even this gave only about 15 minutes warning from the earthquake to waves hitting the coast line. Travelling at speeds up to 500 mph the water surged up to 6 miles (10 km) inland.

Honshu earthquake tsunami travel times

It was not just Japan which felt the repercussions of the event. Tsunami waves propagated out through out the entire Pacific. 11,000 miles away the coast of Chile experienced waves in excess of 2 meters along with most of the America west coast right up through to the Aleutian Islands and as far south as Antarctica where it broke chunks off the Sulzberger Ice Shelf

An estimated 5 million tonnes of debris began washing up on shore lines across the Pacific in the months and even years after the initial Earthquake. In April 2013 a 20 ft boat ran aground in California and was later identified as belonging to the marine sciences program at Takata High School, Japan. NOAA have kept tracks and aimed to clear as much of the debris as possible to minimize risk to ships and wild life but the operation can take more than a decade.

Fukushima

The melt down at the Fukushima was the worst nuclear disaster the world has seen since Chernobyl in 1986.

The plant ran by TEPCO had 3 of its 6 units shut down for inspection when the earthquake struck. Units 1, 2 and 3 then under went automatic shutdown cutting off power. 50 minutes later the waves up to 15 meters high breached the measly 5.7 meters seawalls and flooded the basements of the turbine buildings and disabling the emergency generators. The lack of power meant the cooling systems of the 3 active reactors failed and eventually the heat caused by decay caused the containers to burst leaking radioactive material.

It was classified a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) and its was the way the event was handled from the very beginning my TEPCO which saw the escalation in the threat. Approximately 15 PBq of caesium-137 was released along with some 500 PBq of iodine-131, luckily all the failed reactors were in concrete containment vessels, which limited the release of strontium-90, americium-241 and plutonium.

Dozens of vehicles lie abandoned and covered in overgrown bushes along what was once a stretch of road near the power plantNo deaths were caused by the events or short term radiation exposure but it is thought people in the area worst hit will have a slightly higher risk of developing certain cancers in the future. Now 5 years on there is still a 12.5 km is still in place with thousands of people still exiled from their homes. The wild has reclaimed the land making it look like a scene from an apocalyptic film.

It could be centuries before the area is truly deemed safe to live on again.

Pre-Warning; This has happened before

Japan is no stranger to tsunamis; the 1896 and 1933 Sanriku earthquakes (Mg 8.5 and 8.4 respectively) also brought deadly waves. For this reason tsunami barriers have been constructed both on and off shore, trees were planted along the coastline, vertical evacuation buildings were built to the highest standards and regular evacuation training was introduced. But none of these were built to with stand the sheer force of a tsunami of this magnitude.

In 2001 a team from Tohoku University published an article in Journal of Natural Disaster predicting such an event occurring every 800-1100 years. Within the Sendai Plain there is evidence of at least 3 major tsunami deposits all left within the past 3000 years. On July 9th 869 BC what is believed to be a magnitude 8-9 earthquake occurred off the coast of Sanriku causing a major tsunami which left deposits up to 4 km inland. So given that we knew an event like this had occurred before, why was Japan not better prepared for March 11th?

Sadly human nature does not always listen to the reason of science. It is often easier to believe ‘it won’t happen in my life time’ and then brush the threat under the carpet for future generations. The problem is it does not matter how much we study the mechanics of our planet we are still no where near being able to predict these disasters with any degree of accuracy meaning preparation is our best defence.

Aftermath

A report issued by the Japanese government in May 2015 claimed the events of March 11th 2011 caused $300 billion dollars. A confirmed 15,894 people lost their lives, 2,562 people are still unaccounted for.

5 years on the area is yet to recover. An estimated 174,000 are still displaced mainly due to the exclusion zone still heavily in place around the Fukushima plant. Soon as the initial rescue operation was completed the Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Joint Survey Group was assembled. A team of natural scientists and engineers from 63 universities world wide set out to understand what made this tsunami so powerful and how we can protect our selves from further events. By the end of 2011 the Japanese government had passed laws to establish “tsunami-safe cities” and pledged billions of dollars to an intense 5 year clean up operation. It was clearly a bigger job than they originally thought….

Today there are still over 60,000 people living in temporary accommodation.For residents once living near the Fukushima power plant they will probably never return to there own homes. Sendai is still trying to recover from the tragic events but also now living in fear that this could occur again.

It is for this reason I choose to go in to studying geoscience. We all live at the mercy of our planet and most of us never even consider the risk the land beneath our feet poses. Prediction, preparation and knowledge can save lives and this is what I one day want to help with.

 

Figure 1; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1365318/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-The-moment-mother-nature-engulfed-nation.html

Figure 2; http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/shakemap/global/shake/c0001xgp/

Figure 3; http://minookatap.com/2011/08/22/japan-book-club-the-big-wave-5/

Figure 4; http://www.livescience.com/39110-japan-2011-earthquake-tsunami-facts.html

Figure 5; https://7plaguesofgod.wordpress.com/2011-tsunami-japan/

Figure6; http://vassarchronicle.com/section/politics/foreign-affairs/lack-of-regulation-fukushima-meltdown/

Figure 7; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3263714/Destroyed-man-reclaimed-nature-Amazing-images-reveal-exclusion-zone-Fukushima-abandoned-overgrown-wilderness.html

 

 

 

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

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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!

http://www.geociencias.unam.mx/~ger/2000_GSASP_334_Ame.pdf

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.

Tláloc

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)

Telapón

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)

Iztaccihuatl

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

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.

New Decade Volcano List; #7 Mountain of Greatness

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Sadly the other week the awesome VolcanoCafe sight came under attack by an old member of the admin and was decimated. Luckily for all of us avid readers it can now be found on http://www.volcanocafe.org Now it is back  up and runnin Carl and Henrick have managed to throw up an unexpectid number 7 for their new decade volcano list. Introducing Mount Cameroon…….

Mountain of Greatness – DVP # 7

Mount Fako, old lava flows. Wikimedia Commons.

Few volcanoes on the planet represent such an awesome sight as the majestic Mount Cameroon. It stretches from the edge of the Atlantic at Bakingili Beach and reaches an astounding height of 4040 meters. Due to its prominence it is regularly dusted with snow at the top.

Mount Cameroon, or as I am used to calling it, Mount Fako, is the only volcano to date that I have worked professionally with as a geophysicist. As volcanoes go it is somewhat of a “terra incognita”, and to be quite frank, most that has been written about the volcano is just not correct. So, there is an ample chance here to set a few things straight, do some real science, and also put the limelight on one of those volcanoes of the world that is both highly dangerous and completely unmonitored.

Geologic setting

To understand Mount Fako we first must start with the geologic setting, and also come to terms with the geologic timescale of West African Volcanism. There are 3 distinct geological features that we need to contend with as we speak about Mount Fako.

The Cameroon Volcanic Line

Mount Manengouba Caldera.

The first one is the Cameroon Volcanic Line, it consists of 4 volcanic Islands, 2 large seamounts, Mount Fako itself, Manengouba, Bambouto, The Western Highland with Mount Oku, Ngaoundere, Mandara and Biu. Volcanism in the Cameroon Volcanic Line spans a time period of 49 million years and contains two distinct periods.

The first period consists of magmatic domes and maars, most of them are heavily eroded today and requires specialized knowledge to find. This period ended about 33 million years ago and can be seen as a proto-volcanic phase.

View from inside the caldera of Mount Bamboutos.

The second period started 32 million years ago at Mandara and Mount Oku. The ensuing volcanism is highly programmatic and follows a pattern where the volcanoes are born through large scale basalt eruptions creating layers between 50 and 600 meters thick. After that comes a period of trachytic lava with minor rhyolitic ignimbrites, after that comes a large caldera event with subsequent dyke formations and phreatomagmatic eruptions of diminutive scale.

The eruptive phases of the volcanoes spans from millions of years to tens of millions of years. There is no good explanation to why the basaltic eruptions during a fairly short time switch to highly explosive volcanism. My suggestions is that the large basalt flows necessitate large volume magma reservoirs that over time fills with residue from earlier eruptions and also that the magma reservoirs becomes inundated with stale base rock low in volatiles.

Mount Oku with the caldera lake.

The formation of Cameroon Volcanic Line has erroneously been attributed to a hotspot or mantleplume. And to the naked eye there seems to be a telltale track of volcanic islands and volcanoes. There is just a problem, there is definitely no hotspot or mantleplume to be had. I will though get back to this later on.

Let us start at the Northeast and work our way down to Mount Fako. The first volcano we stumble upon is Biu, very little is known about the volcano except that it morphologically follows the normal composition for a CVL volcano and that is started its activity less than five million years ago.

Mount Ngaoundere with one of the for the Cameroon Volcanic Line so common phonolitic plugs.

To the southeast comes the 32 million year old volcano of Mandara with an unstudied volcano due south. Further southeast of that unstudied volcano is the massive caldera of Nagoundere.

The group above is a distinct group of its own, not due to being morphologically different; instead they sit on a different rift system than the rest of the volcanoes. This rift system is roughly horseshoe shaped and transects the Central African Shear Zone that is home to the volcanoes below.

Annobón Island, a real tropical paradise where you can get down and dirty with your phonolite plugs.

Now it is time to continue with the Western Highlands that consists of two main volcanoes. The northernmost of those is Mount Oku that was active 31 to 22 million years ago before it went caldera forming Lake Oku. Southwest of Mount Oku we find the massive caldera of Bambouto that was active between 21 and 14 million years ago.

Next in line is the 1 million year old active volcano of Manengouba that is situated northeast of Mount Fako. It is a part of the Fako volcanic zone but is a younger and distinctly separate volcano. What makes Manengouba so interesting is that it took less than 1 million years before it went caldera.

Now it is time to get really serious with the plugs. Pico Cão Grande on Sao Tomé.

If we for now skip Mount Fako itself and jump to the other end of the CVL we find the miniscule volcanic island of Annobón and its volcano Pagalu. This diminutive Island formed during an unusually short volcanic period that started 5 million years ago and lasted less than 1 million years.

Next in line is Sao Tomé that is one large shield volcano. It started to form 13 million years ago and the volcano is still believed to be active due to the young cinder cones situated on the southeast side of the island. It is also well known for the Pico Cão Grande volcanic monolith.

Beutifal shield crater lake with a shield in the background. Pico Basile volcano on Bioko Island.

To the northeast of Sao Tomé we find the island of Principe that erupted from 31 million years ago to 14.7 million years ago.

The next island is Bioko that is housing no less than 3 major shield volcanoes that have been active historically. Volcanism here started 1 million years ago and eruptions occurred last in the 19th century.

Central African Shear Zone

All of the volcanoes from Pagalu up to that peskily unstudied volcano is situated on the CASZ, through that unstudied volcano runs the previously mentioned horseshoe shaped fault zone.

The CASZ formed around 640 million years ago and was volcanically active around that period. Previously western scientists believed that the CASZ was tectonically inactive until an M5 earthquake occurred and was monitored on a temporary seismometer. Local sources have though always stated that large earthquakes happen frequently along the shear zone, especially during eruptive phases where houses commonly have been leveled by the intense seismic activity.

The Cameroon Volcanic Line showing the CVL, the CASZ and the Benue Through. Also visible is the horseshaped fault zone. Image taken from

The CASZ was volcanically active both 640 million years ago and also 130 million years ago during the break up of Pangea.  One should note that the 3 active periods do not rule out smaller scale volcanism in between. As such the CASZ is the oldest volcanic feature on the planet that is still active.

The CASZ used to continue in the form of the Pernambuco Fault in Brazil, but as some people have noticed, the breakup of Pangea occurred and the Shear Zone ended up divided across two continents by a sizeable ocean.

Benue Through

Eruption of Cameroon in 2000. Private photograph taken from Buea.

At the same time as the single largest eruptive episode started at Paraná-Etendeka with both trap formations and the largest explosive eruptions on record the West African Craton and the Congo Craton started to separate at what is today the Benue Through.

Volcanism at Benue Through started prior to the Paraná-Etendeka event at 149 million years ago and continued for roughly 100 million years.

As the breakup of Pangea was completed the Benue Through separation of Cratons reversed and the Through started to close up, that created a heavily folded zone adjacent to the CASZ. I would seriously try to remember this feature in your mind as I get back to the hotspot and mantleplume issue.

The Hotspot

The reigning theory for the volcanism on the Cameroon Volcanic Line is that it is created by a hotspot that is travelling in an ENE direction. Only problem is that the time record does not support this at all. To be quite frank, the pattern of age of the volcanic centers is entirely random. Let us repeat the ages from north to south. 5, 32, unknown, 11, 31, 21, 1, 3, 1, 31, 14 and 5. Either I have grown dimwitted or there is just not any time sequence that is associated with a hotspot track 1 600 kilometers long.

Tomographic map of 25km depth. Do note the position of the African Superplume and keep track of it. No Visible signs of a hotspot here at CVL. Image made by DownUnder for Volcanocafé.

Some have tried to save this by surmising that there is another hotspot there and they also favor to put in influence from the Saint Helena Hotspot in the mix. It still does not blend very well with reality.

So, if the time does not indicate a hotspot, what does? Well, the temperature of the erupted magmas is quite enigmatic. The volcanoes have erupted varied temperature magmas with the heat record at 1 338C and the coldest at 1 106C with a medium temperature of 1 280. That would put it at 220C below the temperature of the Hawai’i hotspot and en par with the Icelandic Hotspot. As such that would be a fairly cold hotspot, but those exist as we know from Iceland.

Tomographic map of 25km depth. Do note the position of the African Superplume and keep track of it, also note how cold the two cratons are. No Visible signs of a hotspot here at CVL. Image made by DownUnder for Volcanocafé.

Only problem is that the hotspots of Iceland, Hawai’i and the African Plume are caused by upwelling from deep within earth and all 3 of those are clearly visible when you create tomographic charts of the mantle.

A tomographic chart shows anomalies in the speed at which sound travels after an earthquake. The most clearly visible such entities are the Icelandic Hotspot and plume upwelling and the African Plume residing under Eastern Africa. Those can be seen very deep indeed.

Tomographic map of 25km depth. Do note the position of the African Superplume and keep track of it. No Visible signs of a hotspot here at CVL. Image made by DownUnder for Volcanocafé.

Problem is just that if we go and look at the CVL we see nothing as such, actually we even find inverse anomalies at depth showing the area to be slightly cooler than expected.

The next theory is that the Benue Through is causing a localized upwelling of material from below the LAB (Lithosphere-Asthenosphere Boundary). Only problem is that this is not evident from the tomographic maps either.

Tomographic map of 200km depth. Do note the position of the African Superplume and keep track of it. No Visible signs of a hotspot here at CVL. Image made by DownUnder for Volcanocafé.

This leaves us with a conundrum. We only know that there is no hotspot causing the volcanism. We also know that the volcanism is extremely extended in time.

Volcanism is caused either by hotspots, spreading rifts like the MAR or subduction caused melt. We know that for about 50 million years there was spreading rift volcanism going on adjacent to the CVL at the Benue Through, we also know that this started after the CASZ volcanism. We also know that there historically has been no subduction going on there. Sooner or later subduction in the area will start, but we are not there quite yet geologically speaking.

Tomographic map of 300km depth. Do note the position of the African Superplume and keep track of it. No Visible signs of a hotspot here at CVL, instead the temperature is below average at the litosphere/adenosphere boundary, definitely not a Mantleplume nor a hotspot there. Image made by DownUnder for Volcanocafé.

We are here left with a 640 million year old riddle regarding volcanism. Either we are missing something, or we have a fourth form of volcanism going on at the CVL. Sadly the CVL and Mount Fako is highly understudied. This is the first reason that Mount Fako should be on the new Decade Volcano Program.

Mount Fako

Even though it is sited as being a stratovolcano Mount Fako is actually a fissure row of volcanic craters. In some respects it reminds of an effusive cousin of Iceland’s Hekla volcano in shape. Eruptions at the volcanic fissure line started 3 million years ago with large scale basalt flows that built up an elongated shield. As volcanism continued with shorter lava flows the sides have grown increasingly steeper until a steep sided elongated hull like shape formed.

As volcanism progressed the lava flows has grown increasingly volatile rich and eruptions often take place at 2 or more places. One of the sites will be high up on the volcano and will be explosive in nature and further down the fissure there will be an entirely effusive eruption causing lava flows that often reach down to the Atlantic Ocean.

The eruptions span between VEI-2 and VEI-4 with VEI-2 sized eruptions being the by far most common type.

During eruptions the volcano becomes highly seismic with extensive and intense earthquake activity that often affects the capital of the Southwest Region Buea heavily with raised houses and deaths occurring. Normally residents of Buea are forced to sleep outdoors during eruptions to not risk that their houses cave in on them.

The lavas erupted are bimodal with basalts as the main component, but the other component are trachytes and phonolites signifying a volcano containing more evolved lavas in an intermediary stage. The sheer size of the 1 400 cubic kilometer volcano, the unstable flanks and the evolving magmas, point to a volcano nearing its end stage.

If we compare Mount Fako to its post caldera brethren to the northeast we can see that they reached about the same size before they went caldera. The volcano does though not yet hold evolved enough magmas to form ignimbrite flows.

The main forms of hazard are through seismicity and flank collapses. For flank collapses the cities of Buea and Limbé are in the strike distance. The gravest danger of this volcano is though not through an explosive eruption.

Instead the gravest risk is that a large basalt flood event will occur like the one that was potentially witnessed by Hanno the Navigator 450 BC. Another large effusive eruption would not kill people directly, instead gas content and destruction of cities and farms would cause the death toll.

Mount Fako is today not monitored at all. There is no active Seismometer, no GPS, no Inclinometer. Instead the park rangers are tasked with observing what is going on visually and forward the information to anyone interested in knowing it.

Together with the risk to the large local population and the scientific conundrum that Mount Fako poses it clearly merits to be placed at place number 7 on our proposed new Decade Volcano Program.

CARL (text) & DownUnder (tomography)

http://www.volcanocafe.org/science/mountain-of-greatness-dvp-7/