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Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) — September 1995

Soufriere Hills

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 20, no. 9 (September 1995)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) Phreatic eruptions continue; new lava dome in summit crater

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1995. Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 20:9. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199509-360050

Soufriere Hills

United Kingdom

16.72°N, 62.18°W; summit elev. 915 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Following the formation of Vent 3 and significant ashfall on 22 August (20:8), more than 6,000 residents of southern Montserrat were evacuated to safe areas in the N part of the island. Press sources estimated that by late August ~3,000 people had left for neighboring islands. Vent 4 opened on 27 August and produced mainly steam emissions with some minor ash through 30 August. Although seismicity was high from 30 August through 1 September, steam and ash emissions remained low (20:8).

From 0500 on 1 September through 0500 on the 3rd, only 19 shallow earthquakes occurred beneath the volcano. During that same period, 17 episodes of gas venting were recorded; at least six of those episodes produced some ash, and the two events on 2 September each decayed into a long-period signal of ~10 minutes duration. Venting continued to enlarge vents 2 and 3, but emissions from Vent 4 remained low. A helicopter observation flight on the afternoon of 2 September was in progress when an emission episode began at 1606 with increased steaming that developed rapidly into a small steam-and-ash plume. The emission occurred from a narrow part of the main group of vents that extend SE from Vent 1. Mud on the floor of the vent was expelled during the episode, forming a small mudflow that moved down the S side of the moat and over the area of Vent 2. A gas-and-ash emission at 1912 on 2 September, similar in size and duration to emissions in recent days, was widely observed because of clear conditions. Lightning associated with this activity lasted ~1.5 hours, and an SO2 odor was detected. Installation of a hardened EDM (electronic distance meter) station in the Tar River area was completed on 2 September.

During 3-4 September there were four gas-venting episodes, twelve volcano-tectonic (VT) earthquakes, and four long-period earthquakes. Aerial observations on the morning of 3 September revealed that the area around the S end of the main group of vents had been enlarged. The moat pond in the NW corner was still present, and fragmental material had collapsed into Vent 1. Afternoon observations showed no new mudflows, and the S moat appeared dry.

On the afternoon of 3 September, scientists at the volcano observatory completed an assessment of the current volcanism since 21 August and prospects for future activity. The rate of eruption signals increased slightly after 21 August, but the size of the eruptions did not. No change in the style of eruptions was anticipated, but areas downwind could be subject to ashfall and temporary darkness. Eruptions were thought likely to be concentrated along the linear vent chain on the W side of Castle Peak dome. The amount of shallow seismicity decreased below that prior to 21 August. SO2 flux remained near detection limits since 21 August. The rate of long-period seismic events showed no clear pattern, although a slight decrease may have occurred. Initial EDM results indicated no movement of the SE flank of Castle Peak dome or at a site in Upper Gages. Electronic tiltmeters have detected no large-scale deformation since they stabilized on 5 August. Ash samples analyzed through 27 August revealed no juvenile material.

The scientists concluded the following: ". . . eruptions to date have been entirely phreatic, with no direct evidence of magmatic involvement. So long as this behavior pattern persists, it only constitutes a significant hazard to areas within 1.5 km of Castle Peak dome and the areas S of White's Bottom ghaut. All ghauts [ephemeral watercourses] that originate on the flanks of the Soufriere Hills volcano are subject to flooding and should be avoided." Based on this advice, the government approved re-occupation of the areas immediately S of the Belham Valley River from which residents were evacuated on 23 August. All other residents from areas closer to the crater, evacuated since 21 August, were required to stay in the northern third of the island. Controlled entry restrictions were relaxed in most areas to allow residents to prepare for an approaching hurricane. Following passage of the hurricane, on 6 September the remaining evacuation orders were lifted.

Activity during 4-8 September was consistent at a low and generally declining level. At about 1530 on 8 September there was a significant steam explosion. Two hours later, at about 1730, two large ash eruptions produced a vertical plume that formed a mushroom cloud, which drifted to St. Peters (~30 km NNW) and to the N. Soufriere Hills continued to have intermittent swarms of earthquakes from the summit and nearby areas, including three events felt in Woodlands on 11 September. Occasional steam eruptions produced falls of fine ash in communities around the volcano, and morphological changes were continuing in the summit area. These developments suggested to volcanologists that magma was close to the surface under the volcano and that a magmatic eruption was still a possibility.

Two weeks later, on 25 September, a lava dome began growing in the W part of the moat near the linear chain of vents. An explosion between 1100 and 1200 on 27 September caused ashfall on the S part of the island, with minor ashfall also reported in the St. Georges area. Minor explosive activity continued through the end of September.

Geological Summary. The complex, dominantly andesitic Soufrière Hills volcano occupies the southern half of the island of Montserrat. The summit area consists primarily of a series of lava domes emplaced along an ESE-trending zone. The volcano is flanked by Pleistocene complexes to the north and south. English's Crater, a 1-km-wide crater breached widely to the east by edifice collapse, was formed about 2000 years ago as a result of the youngest of several collapse events producing submarine debris-avalanche deposits. Block-and-ash flow and surge deposits associated with dome growth predominate in flank deposits, including those from an eruption that likely preceded the 1632 CE settlement of the island, allowing cultivation on recently devegetated land to near the summit. Non-eruptive seismic swarms occurred at 30-year intervals in the 20th century, but no historical eruptions were recorded until 1995. Long-term small-to-moderate ash eruptions beginning in that year were later accompanied by lava-dome growth and pyroclastic flows that forced evacuation of the southern half of the island and ultimately destroyed the capital city of Plymouth, causing major social and economic disruption.

Information Contacts: Soufriere Hills Volcano Observatory, Plymouth; Seismic Research Unit, UWI; UNDHA; AP; Caribbean News Agency (CANA), Barbados.