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Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) — January 1996

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 21, no. 1 (January 1996)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) Dome growth continues

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1996. Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom). In: Wunderman, R. (ed.), Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 21:1. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199601-360050.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin


Soufriere Hills

United Kingdom

16.72°N, 62.18°W; summit elev. 915 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)


The dome continued to extrude in the breached summit crater. During January, subtle to dramatic variations occurred in the location, style, and rate of growth (with some areas undergoing up to 1-m vertical rise per day). Numerous spines grew, fell, and shattered. Besides obtaining the first samples of the new dome, fieldworkers established that the emplacement of the old dome (Castle Peak) was accompanied by one or more pyroclastic flows and lahars. The total seismic energy release for the last week of January was the highest since early December. Cumulative deformation measurements suggested inflation of the edifice.

Dome growth and visible observations. On 28-30 December 1995, the dome's E side grew 3 m upwards. Local avalanches accompanied this growth, but by 1 January both the growth and avalanches in this area temporarily slowed to a stop. Adjacent Castle Peak, on the new dome's S side where a small spine had formed on 26 December, volume increased without vertical growth in the week ending on 3 January. During that same week, significant steam escaped near the N part of the dome; the nearly continuous steam plume was sometimes charged with small amounts of ash.

Although dome growth appeared slow during part of the week ending on 10 January, it did not cease. Observers noted local avalanches (off both the dome's N and E sides) coupled with suggested swelling and new lava extrusions in the dome's central region. During this same week, the September spine appeared to move and tilt, and in the subsequent week the spine was pushed S by new dome growth. A new spine was identified on 10 January in the dome's center; this spine grew relatively rapidly until it fell down on 13 or 14 January. Other spines on the new dome also appeared to undergo a growth spurt.

Another spine appeared just after 14 January in the N dome area. Large parts of this spine had fallen by 18 January, possibly contributing to airborne ash seen on two occasions that day; the next day large blocks of the broken spine lay on the talus slope. Yet another spine appeared around 18 January along the S edge of the dome; it grew for two days prior to fall and breakup. Spalling material created a substantial talus pile in the S moat. On 20-21 January another spine grew in roughly the same spot. During the next two days this spine reached 25 m in height and 15 m in basal diameter prior to its partial collapse (an event correlated with significant ash emission on 23 January). Late in the week ending on 24 January, growth of the dome's S edge included growth of spines, spalling debris, slow swelling, and vertical growth.

Steam emissions were generally high during mid-January, and observers first saw new dome material piling up against the crater's W wall at the base of Chances Peak. The other side of the new dome extended a formidable distance up Castle Peak.

The most pronounced dome growth in the final week of January took the form of swelling on the dome's steeply sloping N margin. Although early in the week mass wasting repeatedly sent debris into the adjacent moat, later in the week this took place less frequently. On 26 January a spine was again noted in the dome's S area, but growth there on 28 January was manifested as swelling. Beginning on about 29 January on the N and S ends of the new dome observers saw two elongate ridges trending NE-SW. These appeared as rough mirror images of each other, their forms resembling whale backs.

Lofted ash and mass wasting. Airborne ash seen during January was mainly attributed to mass wasting. For example, a small amount of ash fell in Plymouth early on 4 January; the source was thought to have been a crater-confined rock avalanche off the dome. Minor ash fell in Plymouth four times on 12 January, and one time on both 15 and 16 January. Four ash emission events on 24 January were all associated with major rock-fall events on the lava dome. In some cases very minor ash emissions also issued directly from the dome and some of the material involved in mass wasting may have been dislodged by small explosions.

Visual observations into the crater have enabled good correlation between seismic signals and rock-fall events. During the week ending on 24 January, heat production from the dome appeared somewhat higher than in the past. During January dome incandescence was reported and some material within the rock falls was hot. Rockfalls and avalanches remained confined within the crater area, although the moat continued to gradually fill with debris.

Field studies. Good conditions on 8 January enabled the collection of a sample from the part of the new dome located within the 18 July vent, an area thought to have been extruded in late November. The crystal-rich sample contained dominant plagioclase, subordinate pyroxene and hornblende; parts of the sample were sent to four labs for further analysis.

Around the same time, other fieldwork in flanking drainages (Hot River and Fort Ghaut) found new exposures and established that several charcoal-bearing pyroclastic units (including at least one pyroclastic flow unit) were erupted during the growth of Castle Peak dome. These were also found adjacent to deposits having the character of lahars.

Deformation. EDM lines composed a network consisting of four surveyed triangles around the volcano. The lines continued to be measured routinely. Dry-tilt sites at Amersham and Brodericks on the volcano's W side were re-occupied during the early part of the week ending 10 January; neither showed any change since their last occupation in October. During January, the Spring Hill tiltmeter failed and was moved to a new site, but the Long Ground tiltmeter continued to indicate angular stability.

Looked at in the short term, EDM measurements taken during the first half of January did not show any changes in slant distance (above the error of the method); however, during the week ending 17 January it was reported that a slow shortening had occurred on many of the lines towards the volcano. The shortening indicated swelling of the edifice.

In the week ending on 24 January, it was reported that slant line distance in the NE sector (Tar River to Castle Peak area) underwent a 2.5-cm shortening over the period of a month. During the shorter interval of the final week of January, no changes above the error of the method were detected in slant distance measurements on two deformation triangles in the volcano's S to SW and NE sectors (the Galways-Chance's Peak-O Garra's and Long Ground-White's Yard-Castle Peak triangles).

Seismicity. During January, broadband tremor commonly registered on the Gages station. Tremor was generally absent at the other stations, although the Long Ground station also registered some tremor in mid-January. The number of daily earthquakes typically measured in the thousands (eg. 5,000 to 6,000 events at the closest station on 27 January), too numerous to count on a real-time basis. Instead, MVO often quantified seismicity for rapid dissemination by using located events. These are events for which a hypocenter (the earthquake focus, the point at which the first motion originates) was calculated based on one S-wave and the records from four stations.

An MVO report on 3 January stated that long-period events recorded at most seismic stations had been occurring at a rate of 10-15/day. The hypocenters for these events could not be found but they were thought to be at very shallow depths in the crater area. Later reports in January did not quantify the rate of occurrence for long-period events.

Late on 5 January, broadband tremor picked up slightly in amplitude at Gages station. Then, small long-period events occurred for about the next 12 hours. This was followed by an 8-hour swarm of >300 hybrid events with virtually identical waveforms <3 km beneath the volcano. Lower amplitude, regular hybrid events occurred every 1-2 minutes until 8 January. A smaller series of similar hybrid events took place on 12-15 January. Some initially small hybrid events that first appeared on 23 January grew in amplitude and rate of occurrence (to 6-7/minute) and continued until at least 31 January. During the last week of January these hybrid events formed the dominant seismic activity. repeated shallow hybrid events in early January within the crater preceded new dome growth by a few days. This had happened on at least two previous occassions.

During the first week of January, shallow (0-7 km depth) volcano-tectonic earthquakes with epicenters scattered around the volcano continued at a rate of 2-3/day. An exception was 1 January, when a cluster of 17 volcano-tectonic earthquakes took place just N of the active crater at 1-3 km depths. They occurred in an eight-hour period following an M 5.0 earthquake that struck at a depth of 25 km, centered ~55 km N of Port of Spain, Trinidad. This larger earthquake may have been the trigger for the 1 January seismicity.

Three small, 1-3 km deep, volcano-tectonic earthquakes struck SW of the island during mid-January. Very occasional, small, long-period earthquakes started to appear on the evening of 28 January and a solitary volcano-tectonic earthquake took place early on the 29th. This M 2-2.5 earthquake was located beneath the crater area at a depth of 2.8 km; it was felt by Long Ground area residents.

Crisis management. The eruption driving the current crisis began on 18 July 1995 (BGVN 20:06). According to the Montserrat Government Information Unit (on 13 February 1996), during the crisis there has been no official off-island evacuation. However, a phased relocation of 6,000 residents from the southern half of the island to the northern half immediately followed a large phreatic eruption on the morning of 21 August 1995. Ash from that eruption's cloud, and from a density current that flowed down the flanks of the volcano, caused darkness in the capital (Plymouth) and surrounding areas, and ultimately deposited several millimeters of ash there. The relocation order was partially lifted on 3 September, a day before the passage of Hurricane Luis.

A change in eruptive style in mid-November ultimately lead to the extrusion of lava at the surface. On 1 December 1995 a second relocation of 4,000 residents took place. The relocation lasted a month for residents on the island's SW side and about a month-and-a-half for those on the island's SE side. Some preparatory steps for future emergencies included the continued relocation of Glendon Hospital and newly acquired school buses to move residents.

Geologic Background. The complex, dominantly andesitic Soufrière Hills volcano occupies the southern half of the island of Montserrat. The summit area consists primarily of a series of lava domes emplaced along an ESE-trending zone. The volcano is flanked by Pleistocene complexes to the north and south. English's Crater, a 1-km-wide crater breached widely to the east by edifice collapse, was formed about 2000 years ago as a result of the youngest of several collapse events producing submarine debris-avalanche deposits. Block-and-ash flow and surge deposits associated with dome growth predominate in flank deposits, including those from an eruption that likely preceded the 1632 CE settlement of the island, allowing cultivation on recently devegetated land to near the summit. Non-eruptive seismic swarms occurred at 30-year intervals in the 20th century, but no historical eruptions were recorded until 1995. Long-term small-to-moderate ash eruptions beginning in that year were later accompanied by lava-dome growth and pyroclastic flows that forced evacuation of the southern half of the island and ultimately destroyed the capital city of Plymouth, causing major social and economic disruption.

Information Contacts: Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO), c/o Chief Minister's Office, PO Box 292, Plymouth, Montserrat.