15 March 2010

Looking backward: Past eruptions at Volcán Santa Maria

Posted by Jessica Ball

On our way to visit the Santiaguito Volcano Observatory, Gustavo Chigna of INSIVUMEH (the Guatemalan equivalent of the USGS) was kind enough to take an afternoon off and show us some of the older deposits near Santiaguito. Our first stops were at an exposure of the air-fall deposit from the October 24, 1902 eruption of Volcán Santa Maria. This eruption was a devastating one, stripping the land for more than 50 km around the volcano, burying villages and fincas (plantations) in more than 3 meters of ash, mud and rock, and killing more than 7,000 people (the exact number will probably never be known). The area had already experienced months of earthquakes prior to the eruption, and activity at the crater formed in Santa Maria continued for weeks afterward.

This location is about 4 km from the volcano. The 1902 air-fall deposit here is more than 2 meters thick (the photo is only showing the top bit, and Gustavo is standing a few meters behind the outcrop, so the sense of scale is a bit wonky. The big clast in the center is about fist-sized, though.). This fall deposit contains a mix of lithics (old and new lava and country rock) and pumice, and what’s really impressive is that many of the lithics are the same size as the pumice (up to 15 cm). Generally, in a fall deposit the material will have had the same terminal velocity, which means the mass of the pumice and lithics should be roughly equal. Because pumice is much less dense than lithics, this usually means that the lithics are much smaller than the pumice. Possibly the lack of difference in clast sizes here has to do with the proximity to the volcano; in other places that we stopped, the pumices were definitely larger than the lithics.

The view from this location was pretty spectacular, and it highlighted the deposits from the November 2, 1929 dome collapse. Here you can just see the summit of Santa Maria, and the El Brujo and other domes in front of it. Brujo is the dark green dome farthest to the left, and the hummocky low hills in front of it are may be the result of that 1929 collapse. Hummocks are a classic sign of a debris avalanche of some sort, and can be seen in places like Mount St. Helens and Mount Shasta. ***Note: After speaking with Rudiger Escobar, a Santiaguito expert and fellow volcanologist (see the comments section), I wanted to note that the hills pictured here probably have more to do with lava flows coming off of Brujo than older collapse deposits, although some portion of them may be collapse remnants. It’s also possible that I have faulty notes, as the conversation was mostly being conducted in Spanish at the time, and my Spanish skills are limited. 

After a bit of backroad driving around the fincas, we reached the Rio Tambor, which was the site of many deaths in the 1929 dome collapse. The 1929 event, in which more than 3 million cubic meters of the lava dome collapsed, was mostly described by foreign geologists who interviewed survivors. Their accounts tell of glowing rains of ash and rock; boiling mudflows in the rivers covered with rafts of glowing rock; a blast that rushed back toward the volcano after it blew down the river valleys, scouring the south side of tree trunks; and people suffocating on gases and hot air. More than 3,000 people were killed, mainly because they were on the fincas for a religious holiday rather than in their villages. Sadly enough, this was a very  minor dome collapse by volcanology standards (a large one might be in the hundreds of millions of cubic meters, such as those at Soufriere Hills on Montserrat).

The coffee plantations that were destroyed in 1929 are no longer here, but the new ones are beginning to encroach. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to spend my days working in an area where there are outcrops like this:

These photos are looking east across the Tambor at a mudplain created by lahars, and at the 1902 deposit (the white strip at the base of the cliff) overlain by block-and-ash flow and lahar (volcanic mudflow) deposits. Here the 1902 deposit is about 2 meters thick, and overlain by a thinner gray ashy deposit (perhaps from the 1929 collapse, although it hasn’t been well studied and it wasn’t clear if that guess was right). The upper blocky deposits are probably post-1929, and consist of a mix of lahar and block-and-ash (pyroclastic flow) leavings.

It was a bit difficult to get a scale into this picture, but the cliff is about 10 meters high, and the bigger boulders at the base are roughly the size of me. This is an interesting photo because it shows a very distinct division between two deposits. What we ended up discussing at this site was what kind of deposits these were, and how to tell them apart. Both block-and-ash flow deposits and lahar deposits look similar at first glance: very poorly sorted, with a clast size range from ash ( 25 cm, supported by the matrix). Both deposits are matrix-supported and both have a bit of a mix of angular and rounded clasts.

So how to tell them apart? One clue might be the angularity of the clasts; block-and-ash flows tend to be a bit more violent in terms of knocking rocks around, and they’re dry, which means no muddy cushion for the rocks like a lahar might provide. But what happens if the block-and-ash flow goes down a river (like here)? It could become a lahar, which brings up all sorts of messy discussion about naming conventions. A better indicator of a block-and-ash flow would be the lithology of its c
lasts; lahars will pick up anything in their path and tend to have a big mix of rock types, while block-and-ash flows tend to be monolithological. Again, however, if a block-and-ash flow travels far enough, it may pick up enough clasts from other places to confuse this.

As it turns out, there is one sure indicator that you’ve got a lahar deposit, and it’s not always easy to find (or present). Because a lahar is a wet flow, it will contain bubbles. When the lahar stops, sometimes those bubbles are unable to rise through the muddy liquid and are trapped; when the deposit dries out, the bubbles leave little spherical cavities in the fine-grained matrix. These are really hard to see and it’s easy to debate what you’re seeing if you’re not sure.

So what was the verdict for these deposits? Based on a bit of arguing discussion, we decided that we were fairly sure we saw bubbles in the lower deposit, but that the upper one had more indicators of a block-and-ash flow deposit. So at this outcrop, we have about 4-5 meters of visible lahar deposits overlain by about 5-6 meters of block-and-ash flow deposits. Needless to say, this would not have been a fun place to have been standing for either event. In fact, Gustavo mentioned that very few people will come down to this area after dark, because some of the victims of the 1929 collapse are thought to haunt the riverbed. Having been down there in the evening, I can attest that it does get a little creepy when it’s dark, and it would certainly be easy to turn the jungle sounds into the moaning or wailing of ghosts. Better not to stay there too long, ghosts or no ghosts; it is a channel filled with lahar deposits, after all.