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Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) — May 1997


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 22, no. 5 (May 1997)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) Inflation precedes 1 June eruption at Tavurvur

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1997. Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 22:5. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199705-252140


Papua New Guinea

4.2459°S, 152.1937°E; summit elev. 688 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Inflation recorded since late April culminated in a Strombolian eruption on 1 June. Unlike most of the earlier Strombolian eruptions, this one escalated slowly and sustained moderate-to-high intensities briefly before declining.

Activity during May. The lead-up to June's Strombolian eruption, like that of the April eruption, was characterized by relatively low-pressure, but voluminous gas-rich emissions. Occasionally, these very pale gray emissions produced light ashfalls from columns with heights of 0.6-1 km altitude. Roaring sounds were heard throughout May; loud explosions occurred on the 2nd (at 0105), 12th (1526), 14th (0759), 15th (0052), and 31st (2201). Weak night glows were seen above the crater on the 1, 2, 16, and 25 May.

Twenty-one low-frequency earthquakes (mostly associated with explosions) were recorded during May; most in the first two weeks. The highest numbers of daily earthquakes reached four on the 7th and three on the 8th. There were six high-frequency earthquakes on the 18th. Two of these were located immediately NE of the caldera and one was just outside the SE part of the caldera. Background seismicity remained low at ~20 RSAM units.

The Sulphur Creek water-tube tiltmeters registered N-down tilt in early May, continuing the inflationary pattern seen since late April. About 5 µrad of inflationary tilt had accumulated by mid-May, a time when the tilting seemed to cease or perhaps reverse slightly. At Sulphur Creek, the total inflation since the March eruption was ~10 µrad.

A new electronic tiltmeter was installed at Matupit Island on 8 May and soon indicated WNW-down tilt, suggesting inflation of the magma reservoir. About 18 µrad of this tilting had accumulated by 15 May when tilt changed to WSW-down, a direction radial to Tavurvur. This change was consistent with the behavior of the tiltmeters at Sulphur Creek in mid May. The WSW-down tilt continued through the remainder of the month, amounting to ~20 µrad. The pattern of tilting registered by the electronic tiltmeter on the S part of the Vulcan headland (Vulcan Island) was complicated during the first half of May, but during the second half of the month ~10 µrad of SW-down tilt took place, consistent with the inflation in the central or eastern part of the caldera.

During May the water-tube tiltmeters at Tavuiliu (on Rabaul caldera's SW rim) continued to shift in a SW- down direction. Since the April eruption this tilting had amounted to about 6 µrad. The only late-stage precursor to the 1 June eruption was an unusual E-down tilt of a few microradians recorded at the Matupit Island electronic tiltmeter beginning about midday on 31 May.

Activity during June. Apart from the tilt, through the early morning of 1 June there was little indication of the impending Strombolian eruption. The eruption's early phase began when low-pressure, hazy, white-and-blue emissions rose a few hundred meters above Tavurvur.

Starting about 0700 at Matupit Island, a N-down shift in tilt began at ~1 µrad/hour accompanied by discontinuous tremor (recorded at the nearest seismic station, KPTH, ~1 km away on Matupit Island). By about 0830 on 1 June, the seismicity had climbed to ~50 RSAM units from a normal background of about 20. At 0837, a moderate explosion sent a low-density ash cloud ~1.3 km above the vent. Seismicity briefly reached 200 RSAM units and then declined to ~90 RSAM units by 0900. The column remained at ~1.3 km and seismicity fluctuated between about 60 and 150 RSAM units until 1030 when activity intensified.

Later, at about 1030, the column rose to ~2.5 km and seismicity increased to 250 RSAM units. The column was a pale gray-brown color, with moderate ash content. A strong S wind blew the plume over the E side of Rabaul Town. Then, between 1100 and 1145, eruptive vigor declined and seismicity fell (to 120 RSAM units).

From 1130 until 1930, the eruption was observed at comparatively close range, at 0.5-1.5 km distances. Although the explosions were initially, around 1130, almost continuous, the column only rose to ~0.5 km above the vent. There were multiple active vents within Tavurvur's summit crater, but the principal one was near the crater's S rim. The explosions produced broad, dense, and moderately dark gray emission clouds that assumed the shape of cock's tails. The activity began increasing again at 1145 and lightning was seen in the column at 1200. The N-down tilt that had been in progress since 0700 reversed at 1200 after accumulating ~5 µrad.

A change in the column was noticed at about 1240 as the emissions became distinctly depleted in ash and the sounds grew louder and sharper. By this time seismicity had increased to about 250 RSAM units, where it stayed until 1400. Tavurur's principal vent (on the S side of the crater) started ejecting incandescent lava fragments, including some very large ones. For brief intervals, other vents in the crater issued dark, dense clouds.

The noisy explosions from the principal vent carried brightly incandescent lava fragments with little ash. In contrast, the dense ash-rich explosions from other vents escaped were accompanied by little or no sound.

During a brief lull between about 1400 and 1425 seismicity fell to ~200 RSAM units. Then, at about 1425, distinctly louder explosions began. It appeared that fluid lava had almost reached the crater rim and the explosions were akin to bubbles bursting. The explosions usually involved sustained jetting for periods of over 10 seconds. Intervals between events were typically only a few seconds.

Beginning about 1440, visible shock waves were observed. At about 1451 the explosions were very loud and the eruption column was about 0.5 km high. At 1450, seismicity peaked at 645 RSAM units.

A prolonged period of dense, dark ash emission commenced at about 1500 and seismicity fell sharply. While dark ash clouds billowed upwards from vents in the W part of the crater, the principal vent continued producing nearly ash-free explosions bearing larger incandescent fragments. The dense, dark ash emission had ceased by 1519, and by then seismicity had dropped to 300 RSAM units. Seismicity during 1520-1600 increased to ~500 RSAM units; after that it declined slowly so that by 1800 it reached 300 RSAM units. After 1830 seismicity declined more quickly, so that by 2030 it reached only 90 RSAM units.

For most of the remainder of the eruption the only vent to emit much solid material was the principal vent, which continued to eject nearly ash-free, incandescent lava fragments. Although the bulk of the column remained only ~0.5 km above the vent, beginning in the mid-afternoon some fragments rose ~100 m higher. Explosions throughout the afternoon tended to sustain stronger jets of gas and lava fragments. By about 1800 some of the explosions were more than 1-minute long. In one 5-minute period at about 1800 there were eight explosions.

Witnesses on a boat sailing past Tavurvur's S and W flanks at about 1910-1930 noticed considerably more ejecta landing N of the vent. Some ejecta blew in the strong prevailing S wind as far as Tavurvur's N flank. Between 1200 and 2000 the tiltmeter at Matupit Island had accumulated ~5 µrad of predominantly S-down tilt. Then, at 2000, the tilt shifted to SW down, changing by 0.3 µrad/hour.

During the night of 1 June there were episodes of rhythmic degassing; in addition some very loud detonations shook buildings. Background seismicity fell slowly after 2030 on June 1, descending by midnight to 30 RSAM units. Sustained increases in seismicity returned on 2 June during two intervals: the first, 0100-0145, and the second, 0300-0500. During these intervals, seismicity reached 300 and 250 RSAM units, respectively. In addition, a brief (10 minute) peak in seismicity occurred around 0330 on 2 June; it reached 750 RSAM units.

Overview. Unlike some previous eruptions, no lava flows were generated by the 1-2 June event. Ejected lava fragments showed textural evidence of moderate expansion but lacked evidence of post-emplacement flow. Additionally, the bombs were considerably smaller.

The volume of material erupted on 1 June was very small, possibly only 1 x 105 m3. There was no off- set in tilt as had been seen with the earlier, larger eruptions. Thus, after the 1 June eruption, Tavurvur remained inflated 10 µrad over the tilt encountered after the March eruption (BGVN 22:03). Accordingly, scientists believe that Tavurvur could erupt with similar intensity again in coming weeks.

Geological Summary. The low-lying Rabaul caldera on the tip of the Gazelle Peninsula at the NE end of New Britain forms a broad sheltered harbor utilized by what was the island's largest city prior to a major eruption in 1994. The outer flanks of the asymmetrical shield volcano are formed by thick pyroclastic-flow deposits. The 8 x 14 km caldera is widely breached on the east, where its floor is flooded by Blanche Bay and was formed about 1,400 years ago. An earlier caldera-forming eruption about 7,100 years ago is thought to have originated from Tavui caldera, offshore to the north. Three small stratovolcanoes lie outside the N and NE caldera rims. Post-caldera eruptions built basaltic-to-dacitic pyroclastic cones on the caldera floor near the NE and W caldera walls. Several of these, including Vulcan cone, which was formed during a large eruption in 1878, have produced major explosive activity during historical time. A powerful explosive eruption in 1994 occurred simultaneously from Vulcan and Tavurvur volcanoes and forced the temporary abandonment of Rabaul city.

Information Contacts: B. Talai, D. Lolok, P. de Saint-Ours, and C. McKee, Rabaul Volcano Observatory (RVO), P.O. Box 386, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.