Report on Santa Maria (Guatemala) — June 1989

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 6 (June 1989)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland

Santa Maria (Guatemala) Lava production; explosions; hot avalanches

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1989. Report on Santa Maria (Guatemala). In: McClelland, L (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 14:6. 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)

Santiaguito's most recent (7th) period of rapid block lava extrusion began in June 1986 and had declined about February 1988. A small lobe that descended slowly toward the W margin of the lava field was 1.3 km from the dome's Caliente vent in November 1988. Very slow extrusion continued until the onset of a new period of vigorous lava production around 14 February. Observations 23-24 March revealed that the new lava flow, about 70 m wide and 20 m thick, was overriding the June 1986-February 1988 lava (figure 9) and its oversteepened front had reached about 1,470 m altitude. Moderate pyroclastic avalanches generated by collapse of the flow at the altitude of maximum slope (2,000-1,800 m) and at its oversteepened front partially filled canyons in the headwaters of the Río Nimá II and the tributary E of the lava flow. Brief observations 3 May about 1 km from the flow (at El Mirador) showed no substantial changes.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 9. Map of Santiaguito Dome, showing the ages of its lobes. Succesive fronts of 1986-89 lava flows are shown. Modified from Rose and others (1987). Courtesy of Otoniel Matías.

During September and October 1988, seismic instruments 2.6 km S and 5 km NNW of Santiaguito recorded 8-28 explosions and 130-330 avalanches/day. After the beginning of November, the number of explosions declined to 4-16 daily and the number of avalanches to 60-120 (figure 10), remaining at similar low to moderate levels through late February. More violent explosions began on 25 February and continued through 13 March, stronger than any since the start of vigorous block lava extrusion in June 1986. Some dense ash columns rose at least 3 km above the crater and were visible from the summit of Fuego, 75 km away. Ash columns during this period easily exceeded the height of Santa María's summit (3,772 m), more than 1,200 m above the vent, forming mushroom-shaped clouds 1 km in diameter. Ash reached parts of Quetzaltenango, 12 km NE, within 15 minutes. During this period, 8-26 explosions were recorded daily. The strongest produced acoustic waves that moved suspended objects 7 km to the S (at Finca El Faro). Sounds similar to a jet turbine continued for up to 4 minutes, alternating with the phreatomagmatic explosions. Winds 24-25 February were dominantly from the N-NE at 20-30 km/hour; fine ashfall was reported to 28 km S-SW (in the El Palmar, San Felipe, and Retalhuleu regions). From 26 February through 13 March, winds were generally from the S-SW, calm in the morning and reaching 18-30 km/hour in the afternoon. Fine ash was carried 7-25 km NW and NE; losses from vegetation damage were reported in Llanos del Pinal, Almolonga, and Quetzaltenango (7, 12, and 14 km N-NE).

Figure (see Caption) Figure 10. Number of daily explosions (bottom) and an extrapolation of the number of daily avalanche events (top) recorded by seismic stations 2.6 km S and 5 km NNW of Santiaguito, November 1988-April 1989. Courtesy of Otoniel Matías.

A brief decline was evident 14-16 March, with only 6-10 small explosions daily generating clouds <=1 km high. Activity increased again 17 March, dominated by degassing that produced dense whitish clouds with little ash and moderate to strong jet turbine sounds. Between 14 and 24 explosions/day were recorded through 31 March. The number of explosions grew gradually in early April, reaching 34 on the 18th (the most recorded in a single day since June 1988) then fell to 14-26/day after the 21st. Avalanches from the dome, the central area of the lava flow (2,000-1,700 m elevation), and its oversteepened front ranged from 150 to 300/day.

Weak to moderate fumarolic emissions persisted from the N and S margins of the Caliente vent area. The E fumarole was more active and acted as a secondary crater during some explosions, feeding columns that were similar to or smaller than those from the main vent. The E fumarole may have been the source of the jet turbine sounds as it underwent high-pressure degassing. After some explosions, its emissions increased, often persisting for several hours as sustained columns rose tens of meters to 1 km. Very weak fumarolic emissions occurred throughout the summit area of the dome complex, frequently linked with increased activity from Caliente vent.

At press time, we learned that Santiaguito erupted an ash column to 4 km above the dome on 19 July at 0915 [see also 14:07]. A pyroclastic flow traveled 5 km down the Río Nimá II, reaching 2 km from Finca La Florida. Ash was 1 cm thick at Finca Monte Bello (6 km WSW) and fell as far as the Mexican border. Thirty two Central American volcanologists, attending a course in El Palmar (12 km SSW of the volcano), witnessed the eruption during good viewing conditions, took photographs, and made a videotape. The eruption was followed by two smaller explosions within 1/2 hour, and another at 1600. Prelimimary observations by volcanologists suggest that the eruption may have been associated with partial collapse around the vent. There were no reports of death or damage.

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: Otoniel Matías and Jorge Girón, INSIVUMEH; W. Rose, Michigan Technological Univ.