Report on Ulawun (Papua New Guinea) — November 1985

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 10, no. 11 (November 1985)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland

Ulawun (Papua New Guinea) Increasing seismicity then tephra ejection & lava flow

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1985. Report on Ulawun (Papua New Guinea). In: McClelland, L (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 10:11. Smithsonian Institution.

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Papua New Guinea

5.05°S, 151.33°E; summit elev. 2334 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

"A brief, spectacular Strombolian eruption took place 17-22 November, developing rapidly after about five days of precursory seismicity.

"Seismic activity began to increase on 12 November with the occasional appearance of small discrete B-type volcanic earthquakes. These increased in size and number over the following three days, resulting in an official notification on the 15th of an increased risk of an eruption. Seismic activity continued to increase over the following two days with the appearance of low-amplitude continuous harmonic tremor on 17 November at 1600.

"At 2000, notification was received by radio from Ulamona Catholic Mission (figure 1) of a summit Strombolian eruption in progress, with ejections of incandescent lava fragments to heights of 300-500 m above the crater every few seconds. The eruption was reported to have begun at about 1830, following, or in association with, a rapid increase in the amplitude of the harmonic tremor.

"The intensity of the eruption increased with the emission of two large, dark clouds of ash at about 2045 before settling down to a more steady pattern of Strombolian explosions every few seconds, accompanied by a fairly constant level of strong continuous harmonic tremor.

"Volcanologists carried out an aerial inspection at about 0700 the next day and observed regular Strombolian ejections of incandescent lava every few seconds to heights of about 200 m above the summit crater. A small cone was being constructed in the summit crater, but some ejecta were falling outside the crater rim. Small debris slides were occurring intermittently around the N side of the crater. The eruption column at that time was about 2 km high and was lightly laden with ash. The eruption plume was about 10 km long and trended approximately S. During the day the rate of ash production increased, resulting in a dense pall of ash on the E side of the volcano.

"A lava flow started to descend the N slope in the early evening of the 18th. This flow originated from a fissure about 70 m below the summit crater, and although it moved rapidly at first on the steep upper slopes of the volcano (it may have advanced about 3 km downslope in the first few hours), its progress became very slow when it reached the volcano's gentler middle slopes.

"Spectacular `fire-fountaining' at the summit crater was observed beginning the night of the 18th. The sub-continuous showering of explosion debris around the crater built up an apron of highly unstable material. Intermittent slides of this material, mainly into the NW valley, produced impressive ash clouds rising from the volcano's slopes. The first of these moderate-sized avalanches was observed moving down the N flank at about 0715 on the 19th. Several more slides occurred later the same day. Throughout the 20th, debris slides were common on the N flank and NW valley. Most advanced less than 4 km from the crater, but a few travelled about 5 km downslope.

"By early morning of the 19th the lava flow had bifurcated, with the E lobe slightly longer. Progress of the flow was slow on the 19th and 20th. At 1400 on the 20th, the nose of the E lobe was about 4 km from the summit, and was about 100 m longer than the W lobe. Their widths were 20-40 m.

"The eruption column was very impressive on the morning of the 20th. Dark grey and convoluted at its base, it paled upward, rising to an altitude of 7-8 km, and was crowned by an elliptical pale grey vapour and ash plume extending W. Most of the ash fallout was controlled by the low-level wind system (below 4 km altitude) blowing from the NW.

"The intensity and mode of activity remained unchanged on the 21st, but seismicity began increasing during the early hours of the 22nd. After reaching a peak at about 0800 on the 22nd, seismicity suddenly declined and within 2 hours, the eruption ended.

"When the eruption stopped, the most distal part of the lava flow was about 5.5 km from the crater. Samples collected from the flow are coarsely porphyritic with conspicuous plagioclase phenocrysts. The lava has a similar appearance to previous Ulawun lavas, which are quartz tholeiites.

"During the eruption, on the 18th and 20th, measurements were made at a number of dry tilt arrays around Ulawun. The readings on these days showed that little or no tilting was occurring. Unfortunately, no base line measurements are available to check whether deformation had occurred prior to the eruption."

Geologic Background. The symmetrical basaltic-to-andesitic Ulawun stratovolcano is the highest volcano of the Bismarck arc, and one of Papua New Guinea's most frequently active. Ulawun volcano, also known as the Father, rises above the north coast of the island of New Britain across a low saddle NE of Bamus volcano, the South Son. The upper 1000 m of the 2334-m-high Ulawun volcano is unvegetated. A prominent E-W-trending escarpment on the south may be the result of large-scale slumping. Satellitic cones occupy the NW and eastern flanks. A steep-walled valley cuts the NW side of Ulawun volcano, and a flank lava-flow complex lies to the south of this valley. Historical eruptions date back to the beginning of the 18th century. Twentieth-century eruptions were mildly explosive until 1967, but after 1970 several larger eruptions produced lava flows and basaltic pyroclastic flows, greatly modifying the summit crater.

Information Contacts: C. McKee and P. Lowenstein, RVO.