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Report on Arenal (Costa Rica) — July 2003


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 28, no. 7 (July 2003)
Managing Editor: Edward Venzke.

Arenal (Costa Rica) September 2000-October 2001 eruptions include pyroclastic flows

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2003. Report on Arenal (Costa Rica) (Venzke, E., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 28:7. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN200307-345033


Costa Rica

10.463°N, 84.703°W; summit elev. 1670 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

During September 2000-October 2001 Arenal issued frequent Strombolian eruptions, occasional avalanches, and several episodes with sizable pyroclastic flows (PFs). Crater D remained fumarolic, with the eruptive activity centered at crater C. Crater C also emitted lava flows (as many as three simultaneously) down Arenal's NE-NW sides. In some cases the site of pyroclastic-flow (PF) generation came from outside crater C, emerging where lava flows perched on the slopes, broke open, and violently released blocks, ash, and gas (block-and-ash flows).

In September-November 2000, OVSICORI-UNA reports noted that the lava flows that began after the 23 August PFs descended the N flank, and during that month had fronts at ~900 m elevation. Sporadic avalanches broke off the lava flow fronts. One such episode at 0630 on 11 September 2000 produced a small ash column. September-November ash columns remained under 500 m above crater C. In September and later months cold loose debris came down parts of the edifice, entering the drainages Calle de Arenas, Manolo, Guillermina, and the larger Tabacón and Agua Caliente rivers.

Deformation, as measured by surveys of the distance network, lacked significant changes during August 2000-November 2000. However, between December and April 2001 there were sudden changes in line length, on the order of a centimeter on all lines, and most appreciable on NE-sector lines. The N-NE sectors are also where most of the lava flows and avalanche instability has occurred. Deformation and tilt changes through 2001 were otherwise described as minor.

Two noteworthy PFs, in August 2000 and March 2001, did not correlate with short-term increases in precursory seismicity. Crater C emitted Strombolian eruptions and N-directed lava flows in late February, and produced PFs during March 2001.

Eruptive episode of late March 2001. During 24 and 26 March 2001 PFs descended Arenal (figure 95) in a series of pulses traveling NNE towards Cedeño lake. Both reports from ICE and OVSICORI-UNA presented the eruptive time as about 1245 on the 24th and continuing until about 1600, with OVSICORI-UNA reporting under six pulses and ICE reporting under 10 pulses. ICE reported that the strongest pulses took place at 1258, 1331, and 1400. After that, the pulses became more frequent but of minor size.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 95. Annotated photograph of Arenal's N flanks showing the sketched-in outline of March 2001 pyroclastic-flow (PF) paths. The lower margins of the March 2001 PFs branched into transverse lobes, but the "main lobe" contained the bulk of the deposited material. The 23 August 2000 PFs descended to 620 m elevation, ~ 40-100 m lower, but Cedeño lake and the distal ends of the various PF deposits are absent from this photo. The PFs of March 2001 also produced some erosion on the upper walls of crater C. At the distal end, fine material was deposited atop the August 2000 PF deposits. Courtesy of OVSICORI-UNA.

ICE reports concluded that PFs reappeared on the 25th, with four pulses between 1348 and 1430. In contrast, OVSICORI-UNA's March report did not conclude that PFs occurred on the 25th and only described pulses on 24 and 26 March. ICE described PFs on the 26th as occurring in fewer than 8 pulses, between the hours of 0917 and 1400. OVSICORI-UNA stated that on the 26th there were fewer than three pulses in the early afternoon. It is clear that a series of PFs occurred over the 3-day (24-26 March) period, with few or none on the 25th.

Seismic signals interpreted by OVSICORI-UNA as PFs typically had durations lasting 100-200 seconds. This provided some measure of their time of origin and descent. These workers found that some very large (up to 36 x 17 x 5 m) incandescent blocks yielded temperatures of over 700°C two days after emplacement. They also reported that on Arenal's slopes the PFs excavated a gully 4 m wide by 500 m long. Field observations also disclosed that PFs or other processes removed part of the summit area, including segments of the cone's upper raised walls.

OVSICORI-UNA noted that the largest PFs accompanied dense clouds of lofted fine ash carried SW. The most distant ash fell over the main entrance to the park, in a pueblo known as El Castillo, and as far as 12 km from the source. OVSICORI-UNA scientists reported the lowest margins of the PFs reached ~660 m elevation.

Field work by ICE scientists Guillermo Alvarado and Francisco Arias revealed PF deposits forming three lobes. The main one was 10-50 m wide and reached 2 km in length. It reached down to 720 m elevation and covered 240,000 m3. When investigated (at an unstated date), its temperature measured over 200°C. The PFs had devastated 6-10 hectares (1 hectare is 104 m2) of primary forest, and the PFs, or related ash fall, heat, or singeing gases, had affected another 15 hectares. After the PFs diminished, lava flows began to escape following the same channel, their fronts later attaining ~1,400 m elevation.

This 24-26 March 2001 episode of PFs was judged to have been of smaller magnitude than the episode of 23 August 2000, a day when 27 pulses of PFs were observed, also directed towards lake Cedeño (BGVN 25:07 and 25:08). On that occasion two people died and another was seriously injured. The March 2001 PFs were without reported injuries or fatalities, although the affected zone was somewhat similar.

According to the ICE report, Alvarado and Arroyo (2000) listed five occasions when Arenal discharged a sequence of PFs for longer than one day (17-21 June 1975, 21-22 February 1989, 9-10 December 1991, 29-30 September 1996, and 19-20 August 1997). Only the sequence during 17-21 June 1975 and their interpretation of one during 24-26 March 2001 lasted more than 2 days. PFs in both of these multi-day sequences attained runout distances of over 1 km; by comparison, the flows during 1989 and 1996 did not surpass half kilometer runout distances. The longest PF occurred in 1975, reaching a 3.5 km runout distance, with the PF's distal portions following the Tabacón river.

April-December 2001. In their report for April 2001 OVSICORI-UNA reported that a lava flow had emerged from crater C decending along the path of the previous month's PFs, with lavas extending from the crater rim to the lava's front at ~1,400 m elevation. Blocks falling off the front reached 950 m elevation in N and NE directions. By the end of May 2001 OVSICORI-UNA noted the descending lavas took the form of three distinct flows that each crossed a different portion of crater C's rim. The three flows continued during June. At that time a sudden change was noted at a thermal spring along the Tabacón valley (NW of Arenal's summit). Its surface dropped by ~60 cm; the temperature of the spring remained stable, however, at 52°C. Deformation in the first half of 2001 showed only minor changes in both surveyed lines and tilt meters. The precise leveling lines on the W flank continued to show deflation on the order of 7 µrad/year.

OVSICORI-UNA stated that on 16 June at 0610 a small PF erupted. Although it failed to cause reported damage, it descended the NW flank in the direction of Balneario de Tabacón (a popular lodging and spa complex with thermal pools) situated farther downslope. During July two of the lava flows (the N- and NE-flank lavas) erupted during May and June stopped progressing. Meanwhile, the third lava flow, which exited crater C on the NW flank, remained active and mobile. During July and August, the eruptive vigor stood at modest levels; still, some eruption columns during July rose 500 m. The August and September reports stated that the one remaining actively progressing lava flow reached 950 and then 900 m elevation, respectively. It descended the same channel followed by the 16 July PF but had advanced little if any farther through October.

More PFs on 19 September 2001, during 1633-1640, and at 1646, were generated by lateral loosening of the lava flow at ~1,300 m elevation; it reached ~900 m elevation. The larger had an associated coffee-colored, mushroom-shaped cloud reaching more than 1 km in height. The associated ash cloud blew SE. PFs descended again on 18 October at 1035 from ~1,200 m elevation NE to 900 m elevation. Winds carried the associated ash cloud W.

Reference. Alvarado, G.E., and Arroyo, I., 2000, The pyroclastic flows of Arenal (Costa Rica) between 1975 and 2000: Origin, frequency, distribution and related hazards: Bulletin Osivam, v. 12, no. 23-24, p. 39-53.

Geological Summary. Conical Volcán Arenal is the youngest stratovolcano in Costa Rica and one of its most active. The 1670-m-high andesitic volcano towers above the eastern shores of Lake Arenal, which has been enlarged by a hydroelectric project. Arenal lies along a volcanic chain that has migrated to the NW from the late-Pleistocene Los Perdidos lava domes through the Pleistocene-to-Holocene Chato volcano, which contains a 500-m-wide, lake-filled summit crater. The earliest known eruptions of Arenal took place about 7000 years ago, and it was active concurrently with Cerro Chato until the activity of Chato ended about 3500 years ago. Growth of Arenal has been characterized by periodic major explosive eruptions at several-hundred-year intervals and periods of lava effusion that armor the cone. An eruptive period that began with a major explosive eruption in 1968 ended in December 2010; continuous explosive activity accompanied by slow lava effusion and the occasional emission of pyroclastic flows characterized the eruption from vents at the summit and on the upper western flank.

Information Contacts: E. Fernández, E. Duarte, E. Malavassi, R. Sáenz, V. Barboza, R. Van der Laat, T. Marino, E. Hernández, and F. Chavarría, Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica (OVSICORI-UNA); Jorge Barquero and Wendy Sáenz, Laboratorio de Química de la Atmósfera (LAQAT), Depto. de Química, Universidad Nacional, Heredia, Costa Rica; María Martínez (at both affiliations above); Orlando Vaselli and Franco Tassi, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Florence, Via La Pira 4, 50121 Florence, Italy; Ivonne Arroyo and Guillermo Alvarado, Observatorio Sismológico y Vulcanológico de Arenal y Miravalles (OSIVAM) Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), Apdo 10032-San José, Costa Rica; Mauricio Mora, Sección de Sismología, Vulcanología y Exploración Geofísica, Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR), Apdo. 214-2060 San José, Costa Rica.