Report on Santa Maria (Guatemala) — November 1979

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 11 (November 1979)
Managing Editor: David Squires

Santa Maria (Guatemala) Periodic pyroclastic eruptions; lava flow spawning nuées ardentes

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1979. Report on Santa Maria (Guatemala). In: Squires, D (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 4:11. Smithsonian Institution.

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Santa Maria


14.756°N, 91.552°W; summit elev. 3772 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

The following report was received from Dartmouth College geologists who observed the volcano 11-24 November 1979.

"Activity was confined to the crater of Caliente dome, the oldest dome in the complex. Periodic pyroclastic eruptions were the predominant type of activity, occurring on average every 30 minutes (standard deviation = 24 minutes for n = 67). These eruptions lasted an average of 130 seconds (standard deviation = 150 seconds for n = 72). The eruption cloud in most instances rose about 1,500 m above the Caliente summit with some rising to 1,900 m (500 m above the summit of Santa María). At night, incandescent material was visible within the eruption columns. The pyroclastic activity has produced a horseshoe-shaped cone in the summit of Caliente vent which is open to the SSW. Ash generally blew NW and fell as far away as 3 km, where the leaves of plants were covered.

"COSPEC measurements of SO2 emission during the pyroclastic events show that 10-20 t/d of SO2 were being emitted from Santiaguito. The range of emission values is due to variations in the recorded eruption rates from day to day.

"Observations from the Finca Florida overlook S of the dome showed that there was a viscous flow moving out of the summit cone towards the SSW. The flow had proceeded perhaps 1/4 of the way down the side of the dome. Periodically there were rockfalls off the front of the flow that roll down the flanks of the dome into a barranca (dry valley). At night these rock falls were often spectacularly incandescent.

"Nuées ardentes that glowed at night were observed. They originated from Caliente crater. These appeared to erupt from the toe of the Caliente vent lava flow, perhaps generated when rock fell off the front of the flow exposing hot material beneath. The nuées traveled the same general path as the hot rock avalanches, SW into the barranca. Sporadic observations suggest that large nuées possibly occurred twice a day.

"Geologists ascending the dome made measurements on some of the fumaroles on Caliente. Most of the fumarolic vents seemed to be cooling off. Sapper fumarole was measured at around 82°C, significantly cooler than the temperatures of 170-300°C reported by Stoiber and Rose (1970) for the period of 1965-69. On the other hand, the von Türkheim fumarole seemed to have increased slightly in temperature to 120°C. There also appeared to be deposition of sulfur minerals at von Türkheim where previously only anhydrite was being deposited."

Geologic Background. Symmetrical, forest-covered Santa MarĂ­a volcano is one of the most prominent of a chain of large stratovolcanoes that rises dramatically above the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala. The 3772-m-high stratovolcano has a sharp-topped, conical profile that is cut on the SW flank by a large, 1.5-km-wide crater. The oval-shaped crater extends from just below the summit to the lower flank and was formed during a catastrophic eruption in 1902. The renowned plinian eruption of 1902 that devastated much of SW Guatemala followed a long repose period after construction of the large basaltic-andesite stratovolcano. The massive dacitic Santiaguito lava-dome complex has been growing at the base of the 1902 crater since 1922. Compound dome growth at Santiaguito has occurred episodically from four westward-younging vents, the most recent of which is Caliente. Dome growth has been accompanied by almost continuous minor explosions, with periodic lava extrusion, larger explosions, pyroclastic flows, and lahars.

Information Contacts: R. Stoiber, L. Malinconico, R. Naslund, and S. Williams, Dartmouth College.