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Report on Mayon (Philippines) — August 2001

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 26, no. 8 (August 2001)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Mayon (Philippines) Two main episodes in 2001; quiet seen in late August

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2001. Report on Mayon (Philippines). In: Wunderman, R. (ed.), Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 26:8. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN200108-273030.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin



13.257°N, 123.685°E; summit elev. 2462 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Mayon has undergone two eruptive episodes thus far in 2001. The first episode began in January 2001 and involved a period of unrest that culminated in explosive eruptions on 24 and 29 June. The second episode took place on 20 July, climaxing on 26 July. Low-level lava spattering and active degassing continued for days after the latter climax but activity dropped in early August.

The stratovolcano was last reported on through 31 May 2001 (BGVN 26:05); the present report covers through mid-August 2001. The volcano's Alert Levels are discussed in more detail in the last section.

Precursors and minor explosive activity. Unrest during the year 2001 was first recognized on 8 January when the Lignon Hill Observatory (LHO) in Legaspi City (11.5 km SE of the summit) reported a blocky lava dome growing on top of the summit. Lava dome extrusions occurred before an explosive eruption the previous year, so the January 2001 dome was an ominous sign of renewed activity. From January to April 2001, the dome slowly grew and sporadic ash explosions accompanied or followed periods of seismic unrest. The hazard status was set at Alert Level 2, signifying the ascent of magma.

During the second week of May, LHO staff noticed that the growing summit lava dome overlapped the unconfined side of the SE crater rim. At 1752 on 11 May a minor explosion ejected ash and vapor to 50 m above the summit. A series of similar small explosions followed on 12 May that were likely triggered by magma intruding into the dome. As a result, the SE portion of the dome partially collapsed.

Subsequently, the SE flank of the dome facing the observatory glowed conspicuously and lava fragments began to detach from the summit lava dome. Rockfalls were episodic at first and it was not clear initially whether detaching lava was caused by instability of the growing dome or due to the effects of increased internal pressure.

In time, observations from Bonga, ~8 km SE of the summit, indicated that incandescent rockfalls were apparently caused by slowly ascending magma entering the dome. The magma was degassed but hot, presumably a remnant of magma erupted during 2000. PHIVOLCS later postulated that ascending magma punched an exit point on the SE flank of the growing lava dome. This material then spilled into the Bonga Gully, with hot lava boulders as big as trucks falling, rolling, and sliding to form a pyroclastic apron on slopes at 1,800-2,000 m elevation. Rockfall activity, monitored via the seismic network, progressively increased in frequency until magma discharge was sufficient to form a stubby lava flow on 17 June. By 20 June, the seismograms displayed more or less merging codas of high-frequency tremor, which suggested that lava extrusion dominated earlier rockfall activity. As seen earlier, the lava flow was thought to represent relatively fresh but still degassed magma.

Lava fills crater then extends 5 km. By 22 June, lava had already buried the summit dome and partially filled the crater. Lava was no longer exiting from a single patch at the side of the dome but from the whole breadth of the SE summit.

Episodes of conspicuous summit glow began on 23 June, and intensified to a pulsating light-yellow incandescence by early evening. The summit did not stay quiet for long because the crater began to vent voluminous gases and to shower spatter around the summit. COSPEC readings indicated an SO2 flux of ~7,000 metric tons per day (t/d), well above the baseline of ~500 t/d. At about 1909 on 23 June, a period of low-level lava fountaining began to feed lava flows that eventually descended from the summit elevation to ~500 m elevation-a distance of ~5 km.

When lava fountaining commenced the Alert Level rose from 3 to 4. This status meant that PHIVOLCS considered a hazardous eruption imminent, within hours to days. The corresponding Level 4 Bulletin carried with it a recommendation to evacuate areas within the 6-km-radius Permanent Danger Zone (PDZ) and a 7-km-radius Extended Danger Zone (EDZ) in the SE sector. The EDZ provided a buffer zone to the Bonga Gully, which descends from near the crater mouth to the lower mid-slopes (~600 m elevation) to the SE, a distance of ~4 km. By 0100 on 24 June the PDZ and EDZ were fully evacuated through the efforts of a group called "Task Force Mayon," a military and civilian organization charged with implementing the evacuation of the danger zones. Temporary shelters received ~25,000 people.

At 0317 on 24 June a series of explosions fed an ash column that rose to ~1 km above the volcano's summit. A thin blanket of ash fell mainly on the northern half of the volcano in the vicinity of barangays (hamlets) Amtic and Tambo of Ligao City and San Vicente, San Antonio, Quinastillojan, Bantayan, Tabiguian, and Buang of Tabaco City.

First substantial pyroclastic flows. Although lava fountaining and small ash puffs signaled the start of explosive activity, it was not until 1245 on 24 June that the first major pyroclastic flow occurred. It followed the eastern branch of the Bonga Gully in the general direction of Barangay Buyuan. PHIVOLCS promptly raised the status to the highest Alert Level, 5, first verbally to provincial disaster-mitigation officials shortly after 1245, followed by an official bulletin released by 1300. Alert Level 5 provided a reminder that hazardous eruptions were taking place. Although the 1245 pyroclastic flow was short-lived and ran down to the middle slopes only (~700-1,000 m elevation), this again-elevated status emphasized that more explosive eruptions were expected.

At 1444 on 24 June, large explosions commenced and generated multiple pyroclastic flows around the cone. Ash clouds from the eruption column and pyroclastic flows enveloped the volcano in ash and rose to ~10 km altitude. Although the volcano seemed to disappear within its own eruption clouds, giving the impression of massive explosions that might have threatened the lowlands, the pyroclastic flows and lava flows were all contained within the PDZ, with maximum runouts to only ~5.5 km.

Considerable airfall ash blanketed the northern areas, particularly the cities of Ligao and Tabaco, but this was chiefly a function of wind velocity and direction, because the wind mostly comes from the SW this time of the year.

Eruptions continued until 1921 on 24 June when seismographs began to record diminishing eruption intensity as indicated by decreasing harmonic tremor amplitudes. However, sporadic explosive eruptions continued throughout the evening as LHO noted light ashfall in Legaspi up to about 2135 that day. Thereafter, during 25-28 June, Mayon remained quiet, although Alert Level 5 was maintained in anticipation of more explosions.

At around 1605 and 1702 on 29 June, Mayon erupted again and sent relatively small pyroclastic flows down the Bonga Gully to the SE. Over the period 30 June to 19 July, Mayon's apparent activity waned and the hazard status was eventually lowered to level 3 (which states that an eruption may still be expected within the coming weeks). Observations in support of reduced activity included a general deflation of the edifice, decreased seismic activity, lowered gas emission rates, and the disappearance of summit incandescence. The first eruptive episode ended and scientists inferred that intrusions into the cone had ceased.

Activity during late July 2001. Mayon's eruptive episode during July 2001 was essentially a continuation of June's activity. On 20 July seismographs around the volcano recorded high-frequency, short-duration tremor associated with rockfalls. The number of seismically detected rockfalls had already declined from the pre-June 24 eruption level of more than 200 events per day to (by 19 July 2001) a post-eruption level of less than ~10 events per day. The latter number was attributed to unstable, freshly deposited lavas on steep upper slopes.

Scientists were alerted when the S-flank seismic station at ~800 m elevation registered an abrupt increase, from 5 rockfall events on 19 January to 48 events on 20 January. Over the same time period an upper seismic station (at 1,700 m elevation) recorded a jump from 25 to 142 events. Incandescent rockfalls became persistent.

Other striking changes soon occurred. On 21 July the SO2 flux tripled, to 7,400 t/d. The uppermost electronic tiltmeter (at 1,700 m elevation) fluctuated by ~20 µrad. Crater glow increased and rockfall occurrences peaked.

PHIVOLCS inferred that Mayon had again entered a mild eruptive stage. The character of unrest resembled activity observed between mid May and 20 June, prior to explosive eruptions on 24 June. Scientists recognized that an explosive and hazardous eruption could occur anytime. By 23 July, PHIVOLCS gave the Albay provincial government a notice of increasing unrest and by 25 July, the Municipal Mayors were informed of reactivation and possible explosive eruption of Mayon.

Overall, unrest was accelerating. On the morning on 25 July, the bulletin also added that the current extrusion of lava was clear evidence of eruption and that more explosive eruptions were expected. At 0418 on 25 July seismometers detected more or less continuous high-frequency tremor. Although clouds shrouded Mayon, volcanologists believed these signals indicated that a lava flow had extruded from the dome, an idea confirmed when observers saw a short lava tongue draping the SE slope just below the summit crater.

During 0219-0315 on 26 July, LHO staff saw mild lava fountaining that reached to ~70 m high. This prompted the return to Alert Level 4 at 0400 on 26 July and a rapid evacuation. During quiet times, farmers work portions of land within the 6-km-radius PDZ, but at Alert 4, people in this zone are required to evacuate as quickly as possible. As in the previous 24 June eruption, a 7-km-radius SE-flank EDZ was also declared (to include river gullies upstream of barangays Mabinit, Bonga, Buyuan and Matanag). But, lava fountaining declined at about 0400 and the volcano seemed quiet. This led some people to be initially lax, and some farmers viewed the lull as an opportunity to gather their livestock near the Bonga Gully. PHIVOLCS firmly advised not to proceed. This warning proved justified when at 0538 a brief burst from the crater sent an ash cloud to ~500 m above the summit. This was accompanied by a low-frequency type earthquake that lasted for about a minute. A lack of urgency towards evacuating may have been widespread. Legaspi City Mayor Rosal made the following admission, which appeared in The Philippine Star the next day. "We were surprised by its sudden explosion. We were told to evacuate last night but we did not know it would explode so fast."

At 0745 on 26 July there occurred another ash explosion with similar seismic signature. In retrospect, sequences of low-frequency seismic events were detected by the Mayon Resthouse station (780 m elevation) before the onset of explosive eruptions at 0756 on 26 July. These events were not detected at other stations or were obscured by high-frequency tremor associated with both lava flowing out at the uppermost elevations and lava fragments detaching from the advancing lava flow.

The 0756 eruption produced a turbulent head of steam and ash, followed by a column of roiling dark-gray ash clouds. The column convected to ~10 km altitude while pyroclastic flows descended the Bonga (SE flank) and Basud (E flank) gullies. Upper-level winds conveyed the topmost eruption column to the SW. Lower-level winds carried fine ash lofted upwards (elutriated) from pyroclastic flows to the SE. Accordingly, the main ashfall deposit reached ~7 mm or more in thickness to the SW (in Camalig); it included scoria up to 10 cm diameter and perhaps larger. Most scoria fragments broke up upon impact with hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt, but scoria clasts that landed on softer ground were preserved. A second ashfall deposit occurred to the S, SE, and ESE (in Legazpi, Daraga, and Lidong, respectively), amounting to ~5 mm thickness during this initial eruption. Additional lighter ashfalls occurred to the S (in Daraga) and to the SW (in Guinobatan).

A brief helicopter flight over Albay Gulf looking at Legaspi and Santo Domingo showed the dark curtain of ash progressively blanketing these localities. Pyroclastic flows remained well within the PDZ, a fact used to conclude that additional areas were not endangered. Only small-volume pyroclastic flows were seen descending the S-flank regions (Mi-isi and Anoling gullies).

The eruption that began on 0756 on 26 July lasted for about an hour. Ash clouds remained suspended throughout the day, even when Typhoon Feria's rains swept over Mayon. At 1420 that day another episode of eruptions began. Although the suspended ash and rain clouds covered Mayon, harmonic tremor and booming sounds signified explosive discharge until about 1500. A third and final eruption episode occurred from 1749 until 1810. Like the second period of eruptions, ash and rain clouds obscured much of the volcano from Legaspi. From Santo Domingo, however, pyroclastic flows were seen descending the Basud Gully. A ground survey to Bonga, facing this gully in the SE indicated that very small pyroclastic flows were passing here, yet there were large pyroclastic flows to the E.

When the eruption cleared the following day, observers recognized that the septum between the Bonga and Basud Gullies near the summit had breached. It is therefore very likely that late-stage pyroclastic flows during the third eruptive episode were funneled through Basud and little material was channeled along the Bonga Gully. This demonstrates the high probability that subsequent flows will also affect the eastern sector and not just the SE. Fortunately, flow runouts remained within defined danger zones.

On 27 July Mayon entered an effusive state as lava from the summit fed a flow that eventually reached ~3.75 km to the SE at an elevation of ~650 m. This was smaller than the lava flow extruded in June; it traveled farther and eventually reached ~5.5 km down the SE slope at ~500 m elevation. Hazy conditions in the SE foothills were caused by ash-and-steam plumes from the summit and from pyroclastic-and lava-flow deposits. Seismicity remained active, with signals from sporadic explosions and persistent background tremor related to lava flows and other surface events. Numerous (206) discrete rockfall signatures, for example, were detected by the seismic network and many of these were visually confirmed from LHO. The resumption of rockfalls was interpreted to not result from another intrusion but from loosened lava debris on steep slopes.

The SO2 flux at 6,450 t/d remained very high on 27 July and even on the following days, SO2 emission rates varied between 3,265 and 9,915 t/d. Voluminous degassing coincided with loud roaring from the crater, which caused some residents of Santo Domingo, at least 8 km E of the crater, to evacuate. According to residents, the last time they heard the crater degas loudly was prior to the resurgence on 23 September 1984, so that they were troubled when they heard another explosive eruption after 26 July 2001. The concern was not at all unfounded. Although incandescence of the summit already diminished to faint conditions as observed from LHO, some low-level fountaining became evident on video cameras with night vision. The cameras clearly showed blobs of lava thrown 100 m above the crater rim. This new observation, along with elevated seismic and SO2 levels, and other monitored parameters, kept the alert status at Level 5.

Waning activity. It was not until there were clearer signals of gradual decline of activity that PHIVOLCS lowered the Alert Level 5 status to Level 4. A bulletin on 9 August 2001 explicitly noted the cessation of explosive eruptions.

After 10 August seismic activity decreased. Background tremor associated with active magma transport had stopped and rockfall occurrences had become insignificant. The number of low-frequency volcanic earthquakes occurring daily was still above baseline, up to 22 events, but this is not unusual after an eruption of Mayon and was probably related to shallow magma degassing. The SO2 fluxes, up to 6,600 t/d, were still very high, presumably for the same reason. Electronic tiltmeters supported the idea of substantial degassing, showing a general deflation episode following the 26 July eruption. In summary, while various monitoring parameters continued to show significant unrest of Mayon, the general trend was one of declining activity. This information may be used to eventually lower alerts over the volcano and allow the return of evacuees to their homes by the end of August 2001.

June and July eruptions compared. The eruptions in June appeared to be more voluminous and produced more lavas than tephra. The estimated volume of 15 x 106 m3 was in the ratio 2/3 lava and 1/3 pyroclastics. The June eruptions also produced pyroclastic flows that ran through many gullies radiating around the cone. The 26 July eruption produced roughly similar proportions of lava and tephra (namely, 5 x 106 m3 lava; 6 x 106 m3 tephra).

When the 26 July pyroclastic flows poured down the SE and E flanks, the low-altitude SE winds caused Legaspi City to be enveloped in ashfall. Legaspi City generally remains ash-free due to seasonal wind patterns. Not fully prepared to cope with ashfall, many residents panicked even though the threats to life were virtually nil. Phone lines jammed and vehicle traffic was backed up for several kilometers on the highway from Rawis, Legaspi City to Padang, and Santo Domingo. Busy communication networks also prevented PHIVOLCS from relaying real-time information by telephone to the central office in Quezon City. Fortunately, anticipation of explosive eruptions earlier that day meant that warnings to local and national authorities were already sent out. A notice to the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in Tokyo was also made that morning.

Another marked difference between the June and July 2001 unrest was the time interval between perceived disquiet to the day of explosive eruption. The 24 June eruption was preceded by over a month of seemingly increasing rockfall activity. In a sense, rockfalls were an indicator of magma-discharge rates and the number of rockfalls per day progressively increased up until lava-flow extrusion. In contrast, the period between the onset of rockfalls and the 26 July eruption was barely a week, so that magma-discharge rates jumped abruptly before the onset of lava extrusion and explosive discharge.

Background provided by PHIVOLCS. The towering Mayon stratovolcano is famous for its highly conical shape and its symmetry. It is the most active volcano in the Philippines, with 47 historical eruptions since 1616. The typical eruption episode lasting from a few days to about a month produces a sequence of basaltic andesite lava flows, pyroclastic flows, and tephra falls. Based on geological studies on the nature and extent of deposits, a 6-km-radius "Permanent Danger Zone" (PDZ) has been defined to discourage people from permanently occupying hazardous areas.

Table 6 shows the Mayon warning scheme devised by PHIVOLCS. It is similar to the one employed at Pinatubo. Six alert levels provide the general activity status.

Table 6. A simplified version of the current warning scheme used at Mayon. Courtesy of PHIVOLCS.

Alert Level Meaning
0 Volcano is quiet; no eruption in foreseeable future
1 Little unrest, possibly of hydrothermal, magmatic or tectonic activity
2 Moderate unrest of magmatic origin; may lead to an eruption
3 High unrest; tendency towards an eruption within weeks
4 Eruption imminent within days
5 Hazardous eruption in progress

It has been suggested that Mayon erupts every 10 years, referring to the eruptions of 1928, 1938, and 1947. Then there were the eruptions of 1968 and 1978 as well as the interval between 1984 and 1993 events. Yet in recent years, it seems that this general periodicity has changed. The Millennium eruption, 24 February to 7 March 2000, occurred just 7 years after the 1993 outbursts. A similar period of repose is evident in the interval 1978-84. In fact, close inspection of the historical record suggests other intervals with eruption repose periods of less than 10 years.

Geologic Background. Beautifully symmetrical Mayon, which rises above the Albay Gulf NW of Legazpi City, is the Philippines' most active volcano. The structurally simple edifice has steep upper slopes averaging 35-40 degrees that are capped by a small summit crater. Historical eruptions date back to 1616 and range from Strombolian to basaltic Plinian, with cyclical activity beginning with basaltic eruptions, followed by longer term andesitic lava flows. Eruptions occur predominately from the central conduit and have also produced lava flows that travel far down the flanks. Pyroclastic flows and mudflows have commonly swept down many of the approximately 40 ravines that radiate from the summit and have often devastated populated lowland areas. A violent eruption in 1814 killed more than 1,200 people and devastated several towns.

Information Contacts: Ernesto Corpuz, Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, C.P. Garcia Ave., Univ. Philippines Campus, U.P. Diliman, 1101 Quezon City.