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Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) — March 1997

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 22, no. 3 (March 1997)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) Pyroclastic flows advance over Galway's Wall on 29 March

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1997. Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom). In: Wunderman, R. (ed.), Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 22:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199703-360050.

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 summarizes the weekly Scientific Reports of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory for the period 9 March-5 April 1997.

Visual observations. During the first 20 days of March several ash clouds drifted W on the prevailing wind, small pyroclastic flows issued from the E and S areas of the dome, and small-scale rockfalls were confined to the area SE to NE of the dome complex.

Small, relatively cool, pyroclastic flows with a maximum run-out distance of ~1 km were almost continuous from the pre-17 September dome to the N of Galway's Wall (see map in BGVN 22:02). An erosional chute was formed in the pyroclastic-flow deposit leading out from the crater wall. Small landslides occurred from areas E and W of the point on the wall over which the flows traveled. On 18 March fresh deposits with well-developed levee structures reached beyond 1 km from the crater wall to the SW. On 20 March new fractures 100-150 m long and trending SSE were observed running through the S buttress of Galway's Wall, in the area adjacent to Perches Mountain.

Growth continued in the uppermost areas of the 20 January dome: during 13-21 March new spines appeared on the summit area and afterwards moved up toward the E side of the dome. Eventually extrusion in the summit region overgrew the original January scar and overall the shape of the dome changed from flat topped to a more conical geometry.

During the week of 22-29 March a large block tilting to the SSW appeared in the SW region of the dome complex. Two distinct peaks began to develop in the summit area of the dome, the highest being on the S side of the dome overlooking the Galway's Wall. A cleft formed between the two peaks, with material being extruded upwards and to the SW. The dome grew so much above Galway's Wall that there was no barrier left between the new material and the wall itself. Fresh cracks were observed running through the E shoulder of the Galway's Wall on 25 March. Fresh landslide scars and cracks were observed in the Gages Wall on 26 and 28 March, but no fresh activity was noted in the dome behind and above it.

At 1630 on 29 March a large pyroclastic flow occurred over the Galway's Wall into the White River valley. The flow traveled ~400 m farther than previous flows in this region and produced a dark ash cloud that rapidly convected to ~1,500 m. Activity increased at around 1330 on 30 March when another pyroclastic flow occurred over Galway's Wall from the SE summit. Observations from the helicopter of the Galway's Soufriere region revealed that the pyroclastic material was cascading over the Galway's Wall almost contiguously, with the higher velocity flows surging through the smaller, slower-moving flows. Vigorously convecting, co-ignimbrite-type ash clouds rose to heights of 3.5 km. Pyroclastic-flow activity waned at around 1630 after flows traveled 3.6 km down the White River and caused some burning of vegetation. Trees in the distal portion of the flows remained standing, suggesting sluggish movement of flows in the lower part of the valley.

The intense pyroclastic flow activity on 31 March sent material only ~50 m farther down the White River than the previous day. Pyroclastic flows observed from a helicopter on 31 March were valley-confined; on the W side of Galway's Soufriere there were fine-grained deposits and tree flattening associated with pyroclastic surges. Considerable ponding of pyroclastic-flow deposits had occurred, and the Great Alps Falls in the White river were reduced to only ~10 m high from the original 50 m. Finally it was observed that the pyroclastic flows had cut a gully 80 m deep and 50 m wide into Galway's Wall.

The "Easter scar"— the collapse scar formed in the dome complex — was composed of two scallops, one in the 20 January dome with a near vertical head wall, and the second cut into the pre-September dome. Growth of the dome since collapse, and rockfall debris, have rapidly begun to fill the scar.

At around 1500 and 1515 on 31 March two major pyroclastic flows from the NE summit of the dome occurred in the Tar River to the E. The first flow reached ~200 m past the first break in slope, the second flow reached to within ~50 m of the fan. Temperature patches positioned down the track leading into the Tar River valley were engulfed by the surge clouds of the latter flow, and indicated temperatures of 99-149°C for lateral distances of 60 m inside the pyroclastic surge.

Several relatively large pyroclastic flows occurred over the Galway's Wall starting from 1230 on 1 April, but none of them reached as far as those on the 30 and 31 March although considerably more tree flattening occurred in the area directly W of the Galway's Soufriere. This indicated that these flows had a large surge component, probably due to the earlier valley filling.

Large ash clouds associated with the flows rose to 4.3 km and drifted NW producing ash fall over large part of the island as far N as St Peters and St Johns. On 2 April more pyroclastic flows over Galway's Wall generated ash clouds to ~3.3 km of altitude.

Dome growth since the collapse was confined to the Easter scar with upward and southward growth of the steep head wall. The actively growing area had a smooth, scabby, arcuate upper surface with local fractures and N-S running striations indicative of extrusion. Vigorous brown gas jets were seen emerging from cracks in the upper surface. Rockfall debris began to fill the chute carved by the pyroclastic flows into the Galway's wall toward the end of the reporting period. Mudflows during the nights of 3 and 4 April in Fort Ghaut and Aymer's Ghaut left debris on roads and close to houses.

Seismicity. During 8-21 March there were swarms of mainly hybrid events interspersed with periods of relative quiescence. The foci were located at 1-3 km depth below the crater area. Rockfall activity was mainly concentrated in periods between the earthquake swarms, although some of the larger events during a swarm were followed by rockfall and pyroclastic signals from material cascading over the Galway's Wall.

After 22 March the seismicity decreased. The swarms became shorter and less intense, whereas there was a slight increase in the level of rockfall activity and in the number of long-period earthquakes. Occasionally long- period events were present for a few days to weeks, with a maximum of 40 events/day, mostly very small. About 50% of the long-period earthquakes were immediately followed by rockfall signals, as in October and December 1996. It is possible that the long-period events are caused by some dome process, such as gas venting or a sudden growth spurt that leads to partial collapse.

During 30 March-2 April, the dominant seismicity was related to dome collapse, with many rockfall and pyroclastic-flow signals. The level of rockfall and long-period activity decreased abruptly on 3 April, when a swarm of volcano-tectonic events followed by hybrid earth a very slow trend of shortening, respectively. EDM measurements on the N triangle (Windy Hill-Farrells-St. George's Hill) showed an overall stable trend. On 29 March a very slow shortening trend was recorded for the line Windy Hill-St. George's Hill: the total shortening over the past 15 months was ~15 mm.

GPS occupations on 10-11 March with a base station at Harris showed that Hermitage station had moved by 2.5 cm to the NNE since 18 January and had risen by ~9 cm. A GPS occupation of the Eastnet on 15 March recorded a total movement of 2.5 cm to the NNE for Farrells station, ~700 m from the N edge of the dome, since 13 June 1996. During 22-29 March GPS occupations with a base at Harris showed that Station FT3 (Farrells Crater Wall) , had moved 17.6 cm to the NW since 18 January (2.7 mm/day), Hermitage had no significant movement since 17 March, and Perches recorded a 1.6 cm movement to the N since 18 January.

A new crack on the shoulder of Galway's Mountain was measured for the first time on 25 March, with nails hammered into trees on either side of the crack. One array of nails was placed on the steep flank of the mountain at ~ 50 m from the crater wall; the second array was 90 m to the S in a flatter area. All the lines measured on 28 March showed no significant changes in length.

The GPS occupation of Eastnet on 30-31 March and 4 April revealed that the Farrells site had moved ~4 cm to the N since June 1996 at an increasing rate of movement.

Both the GPS and EDM techniques showed the ongoing slow deformation of the N crater wall in the Farrells area; deformation rate drops rapidly with distance from the dome. Neither technique was able to detect any significant deformation around the volcano.

Dome volume measurements. A survey completed on 14 March using the fixed location photographic method showed 1.34 x 106 m3 added to the dome since 1 March, at an average extrusion rate of 1.08 m3/s.

A GPS survey of the talus at the base of the dome combined with the fixed-location photographic method and the GPS/range-finding binocular method resulted in an estimate of 0.8 x 106 m3 material added to the dome from 14 to 19 March. From the photographic profiles it became apparent that the summit dome had grown by 15 m during the same period.

Evidence was found that the pre-September scar material, surrounding the dome on the NW, W, and SW sides, was pushed outward by the growing dome. The amount of movement was 3.9 m during 23 November to 8 January (80 mm/day), and 9.1 m during 8 January-19 March 1997 (13 mm/day).

A GPS bathymetry survey around the pyroclastic fan at the foot of the Tar River Valley on 21 March, combined with a survey of the fan surface on 12 February resulted in a total fan volume estimate of 15.5 x 106 m3.

The results of a 27 March GPS survey indicated that since 19 March the dome volume had increased by 0.98 x 106 m3, at a rate of 1.26 m3/s. This gave a total dome volume of 49.7 x 106 m3 (44.7 x 106 m3 DRE). Digital elevation models created from this survey indicated that growth was focused on the S peak of the dome and the rest of the dome remained relatively unchanged. A GPS dome survey on 2-3 April indicated that the last collapse removed ~1.6 x 106 m3 of material, of which roughly 40% was preSeptember 1996 scar material and 60% new dome material.

Environmental monitoring. Measurements of sulfur dioxide flux were made using the MiniCOSPEC on 10, 14, 15, 17, 24, 28 March, and 4 April and results were as follows: 700, 213, 341, 317, 198, 160, and 573 t/d respectively. The high values on 10 March and 4 April were associated with the recurrence of earthquake swarms and an increase in activity, respectively.

Results for SO2 diffusion tubes collected during the period 9-23 February showed values similar to those measured over the last few months and are presented in table 15.

Table 15. Sulfur dioxide diffusion tube results at Soufriere Hills for the period between 9 February and 23 February 1997. Courtesy of MVO.

Location SO2 (ppb)
Upper Amersham 47.70
Lower Amersham 17.30
Airport 0.80
Police HQ, Plymouth 9.00
Weekes 9.00
Control 0.00

Results from rain water samples collected at 4 locations around the volcano on 9, 16, 23, and 31 March, showed that the rainwater directly W of the volcano was still highly acidic and had high concentrations of certain anions (table 16). One sample collected from the overflow of Trials reservoir in Fairfield was within World Health Organization levels for all measured components.

Table 16. Rain and surface water geochemistry at Montserrat. Courtesy of MVO.

Date Location pH Conductivity (mS/cm) Total Dissolved Solids (g/l) Sulfates (mg/l) Chlorides (mg/l) Fluorides (mg/l)
09 Mar 1997 Upper Amersham 2.39 2.120 1.050 25 250 1.5
09 Mar 1997 Lower Amersham 2.55 1.162 0.582 16 115 1.5
09 Mar 1997 Police HQ, Plymouth 2.57 0.926 0.464 -- 97 1.5
09 Mar 1997 Weekes 6.49 0.172 0.086 -- 27 0.3
16 Mar 1997 Upper Amersham 2.39 1.883 0.942 34 232 1.35
16 Mar 1997 Lower Amersham 2.70 0.731 0.366 8 100 1.5
16 Mar 1997 Police HQ, Plymouth 2.81 0.571 0.285 3 68 1.4
16 Mar 1997 Weekes 6.11 0.070 0.035 -- 14.4 0.1
16 Mar 1997 Trials Reservoir 7.55 0.659 0.330 40 83 0.55
23 Mar 1997 Upper Amersham 2.28 2.41 1.20 36 211 1.45
23 Mar 1997 Trials Reservoir 7.63 0.675 0.388 39 76 0.40

The maximum thickness of ash collected on 31 March in Plymouth was 16 mm, at the American University of the Caribbean, and the total erupted airborne ash volume on 30-31 March was calculated to be 0.1 x 106 m3, dense rock equivalent (DRE).

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/).