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Report on Popocatepetl (Mexico) — August 1994


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 19, no. 8 (August 1994)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Popocatepetl (Mexico) Seismicity moderate, but distinct plume and very high SO2 flux

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1994. Report on Popocatepetl (Mexico) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 19:8. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199408-341090



19.023°N, 98.622°W; summit elev. 5393 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

As usual, seismicity during July and August consisted primarily of B-type events (figure 3). During these two months, B-type events were recorded more frequently than during much of January-March and less frequently than during much of May. Type-A, -AB, and -B seismic events at Popocatépetl were defined in 19:1.

Guillermo González-Pomposo and Carlos Valdés-González noted that when B-type seismicity increased in July and August, A- and AB-type seismicity declined. Both A- and AB-type seismicity remained at 0-1 events/day for July-August, except for two days when one or the other type reached 2 events/day. Overall, during July type-A events took place 4 times, type-B events 150 times, and type-AB events 6 times. During August type-A events took place 5 times, type-B events 165 times, and type-AB events 6 times.

In contrast with the moderate levels of seismicity seen in July and August, early July ultraviolet absorption correlation spectrometry (COSPEC) measurements made by ASU and UNAM researchers indicated a prodigious SO2 flux: a minimum of 575 metric tons/day (t/d) and an estimated "true flux" of 2,700-3,500 t/d. Their report on the 5,420-m-high volcano follows.

"We were able to make a driven traverse [using an automobile] of the plume of Popocatépetl on 1 July, 1994. The data showed an SO2 flux of 575 t/d, if a standard wind velocity of 1 m/s was assumed; this must be considered as the absolute minimum. Our best estimate of the true wind velocity was based on the National Airport measurements at 5 km above sea level (on 2 July) of 5 m/s. Therefore, our best estimate of the true flux was 2,900 t/d. An estimate of the uncertainty in this flux is complicated by measurements made on 2 July using the Trimble GPS (Global Positioning System) instrument on board the chartered aircraft. One aircraft traverse, at the crater level, suggested a wind velocity of ~30 m/s. So, we are reporting what seems to be a minimum realistic SO2 flux.

"At ~0900 on 1 July, the sky was relatively clear and the plume was visibly blowing to the SW. It appeared to rise a few hundred meters above the crater, before being blown by the wind. The white, cloudy plume remained visible for tens of kilometers, perhaps a hundred kilometers. By the time we were on the road that passes around the W margin of the base of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the cloud cover became sufficient to block any certain view of the plume. At 1700 in the afternoon, however, we were in the saddle between Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl and had another very clear view of the plume. Its appearance then was similar to the way it had looked before, suggesting approximate stability for intervals of hours and days. Using the standard approach (Stoiber and others, 1983), we mounted the COSPEC on the passenger seat of the van, with the telescope looking vertically, and drove at roughly constant velocity (~30-40 km/hr). The traverse was more than 40 km in total length, with its center being at a point approximately straight W of the volcano's crater. Good maps facilitated geometrical corrections to allow for portions of the traverse not normal to the plume's axis.

"The airplane traverses made on 2 July used a plane flown by Sergio Zambrano who used his on-board GPS instrument to minimize all of the usual uncertainties concerning location, aircraft velocity, length of traverse, and angle between the traverse and the plume axis. However, the one measurement that we did not recognize adequately while airborne was the ability to realistically estimate wind velocity at the elevation of the plume, as it was dispersed. The five traverses gave extremely repeatable graphs [on the strip chart records] and the estimated flux was 3,100 ± 400 t/d (using the 5 m/s wind velocity measurement from the National Airport). Because we failed to recognize the possibility of using the GPS instrument for measuring the wind velocity we cannot accept the one [~30 km/hr] measurement as well constrained. If it were true, then the SO2 flux was enormous.

"Our measurements of SO2, by two different COSPEC methods on two different days, were remarkably similar. The plume looked very homogeneous, when we were able to see it on these two days. The increase in SO2 flux since measured by T. Fisher and others by aircraft on 1 February 1994 (1,200 ± 400 t/d) is very difficult to escape [19:1]. An increased gas flux is also consistent with the visual impression of H. Delgado upon climbing to the crater rim in August, that the gas emissions were greater with more loud sounds from the fumaroles within the crater."

Although the reported SO2 flux is strikingly large for a volcano not in eruption, it is too small to confirm with the satellite-borne TOMS, which detects masses of SO2 greater than about 5 kilotons (Bluth and others, 1992). Popocatépetl looms over the México and Puebla valleys, potentially threatening over 20 million people.

References. Bluth, G.J.S., Doiron, S.D., Schnetzler, C.C., Krueger, A.J., and Walter, L.S., 1992, Global tracking of the SO2 clouds from the June, 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruptions: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 19, no. 2, p. 151-154.

Stoiber, R.E., Malinconico, Jr., L.L., and Williams, S.N., 1983, Use of the correlation spectrometer at volcanoes, in Forecasting Volcanic Events, H. Tazieff and J.C. Sabroux (eds.): Elsevier, New York, p. 425-444.

Geological Summary. Volcán Popocatépetl, whose name is the Aztec word for smoking mountain, rises 70 km SE of Mexico City to form North America's 2nd-highest volcano. The glacier-clad stratovolcano contains a steep-walled, 400 x 600 m wide crater. The generally symmetrical volcano is modified by the sharp-peaked Ventorrillo on the NW, a remnant of an earlier volcano. At least three previous major cones were destroyed by gravitational failure during the Pleistocene, producing massive debris-avalanche deposits covering broad areas to the south. The modern volcano was constructed south of the late-Pleistocene to Holocene El Fraile cone. Three major Plinian eruptions, the most recent of which took place about 800 CE, have occurred since the mid-Holocene, accompanied by pyroclastic flows and voluminous lahars that swept basins below the volcano. Frequent historical eruptions, first recorded in Aztec codices, have occurred since Pre-Columbian time.

Information Contacts: Departamento de Sismología y Volcanología, Instituto de Geofísica, UNAM; Stanley N. Williams and Tobias Fisher, Arizona State Univ, USA; Claus Siebe and Hugo Delgado, Instituto de Geofísica, UNAM, Circuito Exterior. 1 Also at Benemérita Univ Autónoma de Puebla, México.