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Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) — December 1996

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 21, no. 12 (December 1996)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) Dramatic fracturing on SW wall as 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, 21:12. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199612-360050.

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 following condenses the daily Scientific Reports of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) for the period 9 December 1996-10 January 1997.

Visual observations during 9-31 December On 9 December it was noted that a crack on Galway's wall had opened 33 cm in five days. One side of the crack had moved by 7 cm, consistent with the wall being pushed outwards. Helicopter inspections on 10 December detected 20-m-deep cracks along and on top of this wall, making it very unstable. On 11 December a new dome appeared to the S of the 1 October dome, between Castle Peak and Galway's Wall (see map in BGVN 21:11). New fractures 100 m long and 1 m wide were seen at the E end of Galway's Wall.

On 14 December the new dome volume was estimated at 500,000 m3 ; having grown over a period of 2-3 days, its extrusion was comparable to the initial rates for the 1 October dome. On 15 December the new dome's top was at 910 m, higher than the October 1 dome at that time; growth had occurred along a linear structure oriented ESE. By 16 December the top of the dome was estimated at 920 m. Observations that day showed that the dome had nearly filled the scar left by the explosion in September and that a new spine had grown from its top.

On 17 December the new dome started to overflow the September explosion scar; this caused several moderate-sized rockfalls and small pyroclastic flows into the Tar River that traveled ~250 m from the dome. That day the new dome was 909 m high, its surface rubbly with coarse blocks, and its shape conical with a flat top and two spines. Comparison of recent dome surveys with previous results showed that older material near the new dome rose 80 m, a volume change of perhaps 7 x 106 m3 since the beginning of December. On 17 December several large steam clouds ascended above the volcano, probably caused by steam venting from the new dome.

On 19 December the new dome's E face was near-vertical and appeared very unstable. Discrete pulses of rockfalls and small pyroclastic flows from the dome occurred only a few minutes apart; these descended as far as 1 km along the gully on the S side of Castle Peak creating many small ash clouds that rose 300 m above the crater and drifted slowly W. A dome survey carried out using laser-ranging binoculars estimated the new dome's volume at approximately 800,000 m3, yielding an extrusion rate of 0.5 m3/s. That evening both the E side of the new dome and part of the pre-September dome failed, causing moderately large pyroclastic flows. These flows traveled down the Tar River and over its fan reaching to within 40 m of the sea; ash clouds rose 3 km and were carried SW. As the flows were generated observations from the airport suggested that fresh lava emerged into the dome nearly as quickly as it was lost in the flows. The next day, ground and helicopter observations indicated a reactivation of the 1 October dome growth. Many small rockfalls descended the 1 October dome's N side, fewer from its S side. Small pyroclastic flows generated ash clouds characterized by little convection, possibly suggesting that colder material was involved. This was confirmed by observations during the night using an infrared imaging system. This imaging system also showed that the entire 1 October dome was active.

During the following days, rockfalls and pyroclastic flows caused many more ash clouds which deposited ash in Plymouth; associated clouds displayed robust convection, suggesting that hot, fresh material was involved. A helicopter inspection on 22 December confirmed that the activity was restricted to the 1 October dome and that there was no sign of activity on the 11 December dome.

On 23 December heavy rain caused mudflows in Fort Ghaut that carried half-meter diameter boulders into the sea. On 25 December some uplift was observed on the N flank of the October 1 dome, perhaps due to an injection of fresh lava. On 26 December satellite imagery showed ash ~100 km WSW at a height of 1-2 km.

Ground and helicopter observations on 26 December showed a significant amount of new material on the top of the dome, darker in color and smoother than the older material. On 29 December, glowing all over the NE flank and avalanching of incandescent blocks were observed. Incandescence in daylight suggested that this dome lava may have been hotter than previous dome lavas. A considerable amount of material was observed on 31 December falling down the N flank of the pre-September dome towards Farrell's Wall. The new material at the top of the dome had changed texture, and looked more slabby than before.

Visual observations during 1-10 January 1997. The first seven days of January were characterized by numerous rockfalls and small pyroclastic flows from the 1 October dome, mainly down its NE and E sides. Much of this activity was channeled into the Tar River valley by way of either an erosion chute cutting across the top of Castle Peak or one to its N. At times of peak activity the pyroclastic flows occurred every few minutes and the largest traveled ~300 m past the Tar River Soufriere. Many of the rockfalls and flows generated ash clouds that drifted W and SW, forming a semi-continuous ash plume observed at altitudes of 1.3-1.6 km. On 3 January the plume was reported at 2 km altitude, and on 4 January satellite observations detected the plume 360 km W of Montserrat.

Theodolite measurements of the dome on 5 January showed that although the height had remained relatively constant at ~900 m since 1 January, a new lobe of lava at the top of the dome was ~50 m thick. It was calculated that 4.6 x 106 m3 of material was added between 25 December and 5 January, an extrusion rate of 4.4 m3/s. This was the highest sustained extrusion rate yet measured during this eruption. A helicopter inspection on 5 January revealed material slowly accumulating against the N crater wall; only 7 m of ridge remained above the divide to Tuitt's Ghaut. On 6 January the glowing dome appeared less steep in its upper part.

On 8 January several pyroclastic flows originating from behind Castle Peak moved down the Tar River Valley to reach beyond the Tar River Estate House; at least one pyroclastic flow reached the sea. Further growth was observed on the NW side of the 1 October dome, but was still contained inside the 17-18 September scar. Several new glowing channels eroded by the pyroclastic flows on the E side of the dome were visible. On 10 January a new, unstable-looking extrusion was observed in the middle of the heavily eroded chute crossing Castle Peak. This new extrusion was butterfly shaped and composed of slabs of fresh lava.

Seismicity and seismically detected mass wasting. Seismic activity during 9-11 December was characterized by swarms of shallow volcano-tectonic earthquakes, at times large enough to be felt close to the volcano. A few rockfalls from the dome and some landslides from the Galway's Wall were also detected by the seismic network, indicating that the wall became increasingly unstable during intense earthquake activity. However, a lack of seismicity on 12 December was accompanied by more landslides on Galway's Wall. During the following days rockfalls occurred sporadically, but their number slightly increased after 16 December, as the 11 December dome kept growing. Also, a few landslides from Galway's Wall suggested continued slow deformation. Seismicity increased on 20 December with a shallow volcano-tectonic earthquake swarm that reached the level of intensity of the early December swarms, although maximum magnitudes were not as large as before. Several rockfalls were also detected, mostly from the 1 October dome.

On 22 December the volcano-tectonic seismicity died out, rockfall signals continued, and hybrid seismicity reached April levels. This and increases in the quantity of ash and pyroclastic flows were taken as an indication that the dome growth rate had increased, but poor visibility prevented dome observations. By 24 December hybrid events and continuous tremor dominated the records, but by 27 December banded tremor reached a maximum. Banded tremor, which was last seen between late July and mid-September, had taken place associated with large pyroclastic flows and the 17-18 September explosion.

On 28 December large hybrid events and rockfall signals dominated, but regularly spaced bands of continuous seismic tremor returned on 30 December. Lower in amplitude than before, the banded tremor occurred at ~10-hour intervals. By 31 December the activity was again dominated by banded tremor episodes ~5 hours apart, and by hybrid earthquakes and rockfall signals. This pattern of seismicity continued during the first seven days of January. Volcano-tectonic earthquakes returned on 4 January with signals similar to the November and December events, but possibly from slightly greater depths (2-3 km). From 8 to 10 January, in correspondence with increased dome activity, the seismicity became dominated by rockfall and pyroclastic-flow signals.

COSPEC, EDM, and other measurements. COSPEC measurements were made on 27 and 28 December. The data from 27 December averaged 350 metric tons/day (t/d) but reached ~400 t/d shortly after one of the peaks in seismic tremor. The average fluxes on 28 December, and on 1, 4, 9, and 10 January were 325, 300, 400, 1,130, and 390 t/d, respectively. The increase in emission of SO2 measured on 9 January was probably due to a partial collapse of the dome.

EDM measurements carried out on the E triangle on 10 and 13 December suggested a continuation of the shortening trend started several weeks earlier. On 16 December, the S triangle had been unchanged since 4 December; on 18 December the lines N of the volcano had also not changed significantly since 5 November. The average shortening on the lines to Castle Peak during 20-22 December was 6 cm; such high rates of deformation had occasionally been seen in the past. In contrast, the shortening seen there during 26-28 December was small (2.4 mm). This drop in the deformation rate roughly coincided with the appearance of new material at the surface on the 1 October dome.

Gravity measurements on the E flank on 22 December showed no significant changes since July 1996. Changes at stations on the upper slope were consistent with the mass added to the dome.

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 (URL: http://www.mvo.ms/).