Report on Yasur (Vanuatu) — December 1988

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 12 (December 1988)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland

Yasur (Vanuatu) Centuries-long Strombolian eruption continues from four vents

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1988. Report on Yasur (Vanuatu). In: McClelland, L (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 13:12. Smithsonian Institution.

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19.53°S, 169.442°E; summit elev. 361 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

". . . The gas and ash plume discharged from the volcano is carried by the prevailing SE trade winds across the central parts of the island. During 1987 and 1988, vegetation in areas downwind from the volcano has been affected by gas, ash, and acid rain from the plume, causing damage to residents' gardens and coffee plantings in the centre of the island. The volcanic damage added to and accentuated that caused by a succession of three cyclones in 1987-88. Werner Giggenbach, Ian Nairn, and Bradley Scott of the New Zealand DSIR visited Tanna for two weeks in September 1988. The investigation was coordinated and funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Although frequently visited by tourists, eruptive activity at Yasur has not been studied in detail since a 1959 seismic study by Blot and Tazieff. Activity between 1959 and 1978 was briefly described by Carney and Macfarlane (New Hebrides Government Geological Survey Regional Report, 1979).

"Explosive eruptions were frequent at Yasur during our 6-14 September observation period, with four vents active in the three main subcraters, and continuous steam emission from a 5th vent high on the W crater wall. This steam vent had formed since the last available aerial photography in September 1986. A gas plume was continuously emitted from a small active lava lake in the central subcrater, with intermittent gas discharges during explosive eruptions from the other three vents. All these gas discharges combined to produce a continuous and voluminous gas plume that extended downwind from the volcano. Discussions with local people, observations made by tourists in past years, and comparisons with published and unpublished photographs have indicated that eruptive activity was at a relatively high level during our inspection, probably with more frequent explosions from more active vents than was usual prior to 1987. The volcanic plume also now appears to be larger and more constant than typical of earlier dry seasons.

"Eruption observations (including video camera recordings) correlated with our seismic recordings have enabled the seismicity to be used as a continuous record of eruptive activity, and provide the only quantitative data on comparative activity and gas discharge. During an inspection in April-May 1959, Blot and Tazieff recorded an average of 5 explosion earthquakes/hour, at a time when Yasur was fairly quiet. During our September 1988 observations, an average rate of 21.5 explosion earthquakes/hour was recorded. Each explosion results from the discharge of volcanic gas, while the high level of recorded volcanic tremor is correlated with the continuous gas discharge through the lava lake. We infer that the gas discharge was considerably higher in September 1988 than in 1959. Many of the explosions occurred as sharp detonations, often preceded by 'flashing arcs' (atmospheric shock waves) visible in the steam and gas haze within the crater, and felt as a sharp slap by observers on the crater rim.

"The present subcraters are deep (estimated at ~250 m below the S crater rim by parallax bar heighting of aerial photographs, and angle/distance measurements to the central lava lake) with near-vertical walls. Although the most violent explosions threw bombs high above the crater rim, these were on near-vertical trajectories, so that nearly all the bombs fell back into the crater.

"During earlier periods of increased eruptive activity, such as in 1975, many bombs were thrown over the crater rim, probably due to a shallower and more gently sloping crater configuration. The frequent explosions now occurring may also be less violent due to greater gas discharge and magma convection rates maintaining higher temperatures, and thus lower viscosities and yield strengths in the uppermost parts of the magma columns. The only bomb observed to be thrown over the crater rim was sampled while still hot, and has a composition similar to that of bombs ejected in 1934 and 1975. This suggests that no major change in magma composition has accompanied the recent volcanic gas damage problems.

"Gas samples collected from the plume crossing Yasur crater rim contained SO2 and HCl gases at concentrations between 3 and 9 ppm. The mass discharge rate of volcanic gases was not measured but our visual comparison of plume size with other volcanoes suggests that the Yasur discharge rate was between 400 and 800 tons/day SO2. This output and gas composition are typical of other volcanoes around the Pacific rim. SO2 and HCl are removed from volcanic plumes by rainout of condensing steam within the plume, rainfall through the plume, and adsorbed onto ash falling from the plume. Studies elsewhere have shown that damage to vegetation is most likely to have resulted from acids dissolved in water, most effectively applied to foliage as light rain or mist and accentuated by the presence of fine ash particles. These mechanisms appear to have caused the vegetation damage.

"Radiocarbon samples collected from Yasur pyroclastic fall deposits downwind . . . suggest that . . . continuous small-scale Strombolian activity has been in progress for the last 800 years, with at least two discrete subplinian scoria fall eruptions occurring between 1,400 and 800 years BP."

References. Blot, C., Chaigneau, M., and Tazieff, H., 1960, Nouvelles-Hebrides (Mars-Mai 1959): BV, v. 23, p. 207-210.

Geology of Tanna, Aneityum, Futuna and Aniwa. 1978: 1:100,000 New Hebrides Geological Survey Sheet 11.

Geologic Background. Yasur, the best-known and most frequently visited of the Vanuatu volcanoes, has been in more-or-less continuous strombolian and vulcanian activity since Captain Cook observed ash eruptions in 1774. This style of activity may have continued for the past 800 years. Located at the SE tip of Tanna Island, this mostly unvegetated pyroclastic cone has a nearly circular, 400-m-wide summit crater. Yasur is largely contained within the small Yenkahe caldera and is the youngest of a group of Holocene volcanic centers constructed over the down-dropped NE flank of the Pleistocene Tukosmeru volcano. The Yenkahe horst is located within the Siwi ring fracture, a 4-km-wide, horseshoe-shaped caldera associated with eruption of the andesitic Siwi pyroclastic sequence. Active tectonism along the Yenkahe horst accompanying eruptions has raised Port Resolution harbor more than 20 m during the past century.

Information Contacts: I. Nairn, NZGS Rotorua.