Logo link to homepage

Report on Fernandina (Ecuador) — February 1995


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 20, no. 2 (February 1995)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Fernandina (Ecuador) Flank eruption slows but continues until at least 19 March

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1995. Report on Fernandina (Ecuador) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 20:2. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199502-353010



0.37°S, 91.55°W; summit elev. 1476 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

The fissure eruption... has continued sending lava flows down the SW flank and into the sea. All of the new flows appeared to be aa lavas (figure 2). Godfrey Merlen compared the eruption intensity in late January to 5 March and concluded that it had decreased significantly... eruptions continued through at least 19 March.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 2. SW Fernandina Island sketch map from an original ~9 February map by Godfrey Merlen with later annotations by Tui De Roy. GPS points A, B, and C were recorded on 7 March. Point A lay at the extreme S end of a new 80-m-wide aa flow that also passed through point B. Point C lay at the foot of the S side of an active cone.

Tui De Roy was on the island during 8-16 February and part of her report follows (the term "kipuka" refers to an area of older rocks surrounded by younger lava flows). She saw two vent areas (figure 2): 1) an early eruptive site (active before she arrived) in the crater of an old cone ("Old Cone"), and 2) a main vent where the sustained activity that she witnessed took place ("Main vent"). She also had a reconnaissance view of some small finger-like lava flows at higher elevation ("inexact" on figure 2 and discussed below under Early Activity).

"All of the activity has taken place along a prominently marked, prehistoric radial fissure running from about half way up the volcano right down to the shore. This fissure is marked by numerous old cones of varying ages, ranging from a very old, elongated (and perfectly aligned) well-vegetated cones covered in ancient ash at the edge of a kipuka ["Old Cone"], to a string of 6-8 very recent looking cones on the lower flats coming right down to the shore [figure 2]. Significantly, a couple of very small new spatter cones had been active briefly early in this eruption within the crater of the old cone.... The entire length of this radial fissure had built up through previous eruptions something of a ridgeline down the flank of the volcano, which served to deflect most of the current lava to its northern watershed, although later in our stay an increasing number of flows were beginning to spill over through a gap to the S, posing an imminent threat to the wildlife oasis of Cape Hammond...."

De Roy also noted that in many cases the paths of lava flows descending the flank "could not be readily followed because of undulations in the land and the fact that many of the flows disappeared into lava tubes at several points." But, she did describe flows that were visible, as follows.

"Both the active flows, as well as some that appeared to have now stopped, meandered and braided down the slope, with arms crisscrossing through irregular-shaped kipukas far to the NW of the main and most direct path to the sea. A new flow (as shown on Godfrey's map) reached the sea S of the main flows at about 0800 on 8 February where it formed a new delta and continued to advance steadily before halting a couple of days later."

Although there were slight variations, the intensity and height of the fountaining remained "remarkably steady" during her stay. The single active main vent displayed continuous fountaining 50-100 m tall. Fountains shot up both vertically and at oblique angles on either side of the vent. During 8-16 February the spatter cone around the vent grew considerably broader, but little taller. She camped near the vent on 9 and 13 February (figure 2) and watched the growth of a very blocky mass of rubble at the E base of the cone.

The migration of flows toward the N is emphasized by comparing De Roy's 16 February annotations of lava extent to the map completed by Merlen about a week earlier (figure 2). Starting about 12 February new flow paths developed high on the slope. Some lava flowed N as small fingers, but beginning at about 1600 on 12 February a large lobe flowed more southward than before. This migration of lava flows to the N and S corresponded with a progressive decrease in lava flow rate at the ocean entry (even though, as previously mentioned, the fountaining at the vent showed no marked decrease). By the time De Roy departed at noon on 16 February ". . . there seemed to be no more flowing of lava into the sea, with only slight wisps of steam still rising along the shore." On the nights of 13-15 February the glow from lava on the flats 1-2 km inland seemed to increase.

Although De Roy's observation of smoke and other airborne material was from upwind positions, she reported the following: "Only a very small amount of solid airborne particles appear to have been emitted during the initial stage of the eruption. A minimal amount of Pele's hair was evident near the shore, barely increasing in density closer to the vent. Within 1-2 km of the vent a thin dusting of light, gassy scoria littered the ground as in all previously observed Fernandina eruptions, but in much lower amount than some of the caldera eruptions of the 1970s and 1980s. Such scoria was still being produced at the time of our visit, with constant fallout in the area of our camp of 9 February whenever the eruption cloud drifted above us. No signs of ash from this eruption were present anywhere; although I did hear comment of 'ash' dusting one of the early boats to visit the site.

"Intense heat was rising from the main vent, with only moderate amounts of bluish-white smoke. It rose vertically into a constantly contorting, billowing, major thermal head, resembling a thunderhead. In addition, a pall of amber-colored fumes surrounded this cloud column and spread westward at all times, regardless of the shifting directions of the wind at lower elevations, which caused the main cloud to waver in various directions at different times of day or night. This pall was particularly evident when traversed by sunshine or moonshine, which took on a brownish hue. This plume should have been evident on satellite images, regardless of the main cloud possibly being mistaken for the normal thunderhead prevalent over the island during this El Niño season. The 'smoke' from the vent did seem to increase very gradually during our stay."

Besides the main vent, the eruption also produced voluminous amounts of gases from two other sources: 1) several areas of the main lava flow ~2 km below the main vent where degassing took place at the mouths of lava tubes, and 2) at the lava's ocean entry where mainly steam was rising. The first source of gases came out of the main lava flow and was thought to be degassing at the mouths of lava tubes.

Weather satellites (and shuttle astronauts)... have thus far been unable to obtain clear views of the eruption plume. The difficulty has been screening from high clouds coupled with inadequate eruptive plume heights. The TOMS instrument that has successfully imaged Galápagos eruptions since 1979 failed in December 1994.

Having seen the eruption in late-January, Godfrey Merlen returned... on the night of 5 March and noted a reduction in the comparative intensity of the eruption. In March the molten lava at the ocean entry was "dripping rather than flowing." Though less intense than in February, lava outflows remained concentrated at the site where lava had initially entered the sea in January; in March this amounted to about 10 separate outpourings over a 90-m lateral distance. Merlen noted that the small delta created there was ~5-m high and already cut back by waves forming an almost vertical cliff face. In contrast to earlier stages of the eruption, floating dead fish and the abundant wildlife feeding on them were largely absent. In March the sea surface temperature was up to 45°C, while it was ~24.5°C at a distance from the new delta. These temperatures were down from those in mid-Feb when at equivalent spots temperatures were >60°C and ~ 27°C (table 5). No new lava flows had moved to the S. Though still very hot, the new flow appeared to have left nearby vegetation nearly green, suggesting it may have been cooler when erupted than some of the earlier lavas. Scoria thickness on the new cone's upwind base averaged 5 cm.

Table 5. A summary of measurements and remarks comparing offshore seawater and nearshore turgid water close to the lava's ocean entry for the vigorous part of the eruption (late January and early February). Courtesy of Godfrey Merlen.

Location Color Temperature Secci disk visible to (depth) Remarks
"Normal" water offshore Dark blue 27°C ~12 m --
Turgid water at the lava's ocean entry Bright green 31°C Up to ~2 km offshore and extending S of Cape Hammond landing --
Adjacent the lava entry Brownish-yellow >60°C -- Steaming with rising bubbles

As previously mentioned, the "old cone" (figure 2) contained two or three early vents within its crater. These vents were marked by steep black spatter. The spatter had been flung 20-30 m, coating and charring trees. Those trees closest to the vents (~15 m from them) had their bark steamed off and were deep orange in color. Although these vents were only briefly active, they discharged a very rough aa flow.

Around the old cone many of the larger trees (Palo Santo and Opuntia cacti) had lost limbs or been knocked down (uprooted or snapped off at mid-height). The trees had predominantly fallen in a downhill direction, radiating roughly away from the main vent. An absence of directional scouring from scoria, and the presence of Waltheria bushes repeatedly twisted around their bases, suggested violent multidirectional wind gusts (a "tornado") rather than a well-defined unidirectional blast. Within a kilometer of the vent, however, Jasminocercus cacti consistently showed mild blistering from excess heat on their ventward sides.

Merlen noted that during the eruption lightning and heavy rain were commonly seen. For example, on the night of 28 January (prior to the release of ponded lava into the sea at about 2230) there was considerable sheet lightning coming from high clouds. Merlen also noted that high columns of thick white steam rose on occasion to ~4 km. The ascent of these plumes appeared dependant on the flux of lava into the sea.

Submarine acoustic recordings were also made by Merlen on 27-29 January using a Benthos hydrophone. The recordings detected extremely loud, echoing explosions at least 7 km from the lava's ocean entry. These sounds were not heard during subsequent visits (on 6-7 and 10 February); however, during all visits the hydrophones received a cacophony of hissings, poppings, and low-level thumps.

Some of Merlen's oceanographic observations are summarized in table 1. Within the discolored water Merlen also noted a ~100-m-diameter circular patch of upwelling water that was "glassy-smooth" and encircled by standing waves up to a meter in height on its margins. Located near the shore and not shifting in position, the upwelling water was cool and sufficiently turbulent to make steerage of the dingy difficult. In contrast to the cool (19.6°C) upwelling water, only 2-3 m away from its margin very hot (50°C) water was found. The upwelling water was brought to his attention by seabirds attracted to it. "Around this dramatic phenomenon and spreading out from it were a quantity of dead fish representing a mesopelagic fauna, including hatchet fish (Argyopelecus sp.), what appears to be a scabbard fish (Aphanopus sp.), and others that have yet to be identified." Although a limited amount is known about the vertical ranges of these kinds of fish, their presence at the surface may help determine the sources of this cold upwelling water.

Biological impact. De Roy noted that the wildlife appeared unable to comprehend the dangers from the intense heat of the lava. Marine iguanas were attracted to the warmth of active flows, climbed onto them, and were ignited before being able to escape. On the other hand, sea turtles and adult fur seals cruised through steaming waters within meters of the lava flow edge and showed no immediate signs of discomfort or injury. In other cases, it was unclear if the water temperature or chemistry was more critical in causing death (eg. pelicans, marine invertebrates, moray eels, and fish). In the sea and along the shore, many animals were attracted by the abundance of dead marine life floating on the surface. These opportunistic species included frigate birds, boobies, brown noddies, storm petrels, and many hundreds of pelicans. Merlen mentioned pelicans with pouches scalded from diving into hot seawater. In addition, De Roy saw sharks, sea lions, and flightless cormorants feeding. The eruption also killed some land iguanas. If lava flows were to reach Cape Hammond this would threaten flightless cormorants, penguins, and marine iguanas as well as one of the largest breeding populations of Galápagos fur seals. Merlen closed his 28 February report with the words: "the overall impression was that of biology in confusion."

Geological Summary. Fernandina, the most active of Galápagos volcanoes and the one closest to the Galápagos mantle plume, is a basaltic shield volcano with a deep 5 x 6.5 km summit caldera. The volcano displays the classic "overturned soup bowl" profile of Galápagos shield volcanoes. Its caldera is elongated in a NW-SE direction and formed during several episodes of collapse. Circumferential fissures surround the caldera and were instrumental in growth of the volcano. Reporting has been poor in this uninhabited western end of the archipelago, and even a 1981 eruption was not witnessed at the time. In 1968 the caldera floor dropped 350 m following a major explosive eruption. Subsequent eruptions, mostly from vents located on or near the caldera boundary faults, have produced lava flows inside the caldera as well as those in 1995 that reached the coast from a SW-flank vent. Collapse of a nearly 1 km3 section of the east caldera wall during an eruption in 1988 produced a debris-avalanche deposit that covered much of the caldera floor and absorbed the caldera lake.

Information Contacts: T. De Roy, Golden Bay, New Zealand; G. Merlen and D. Day, Estacion Cientifica Charles Darwin; J. Lynch, SAB; C. Evans, Lockheed.