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Report on Popocatepetl (Mexico) — March 1996


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 21, no. 3 (March 1996)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Popocatepetl (Mexico) Continued ash emissions; new lava dome and lava flows in summit crater

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1996. Report on Popocatepetl (Mexico) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 21:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199603-341090



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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

A new eruption began early on 5 March with continuous tremor followed by small ash emissions (BGVN 21:02). Low-level ash emissions continued through 11 March with some larger events on 10 and 11 March. Those episodes generated plumes that extended SW over the Pacific Ocean.

After 11 March and through the 19th, the overall level of activity appeared to have reached a steady state. Fumarolic activity alternated with 4-6 short-duration ash emissions each day from the same vents as the 1994-95 episode. These emissions formed short-lived ash columns that were carried away by the wind. Light ashfalls were reported from several towns around the volcano, particularly to the E and S. Seismicity, as low-level tremor accompanied by minor A- and B-type volcanic earthquakes, also showed almost stationary patterns and energy release rates. No deformation was detected by the 3-tiltmeter network on the N flank.

Satellite imagery during this interval revealed intermittent plumes extending E at altitudes around 6-7 km. Late on 13 March the plume was visible as far as 340 km ESE of the summit at 5-7 km altitude; ashfall was reported in Puebla, 70 km E. Large plumes of very thin dispersed ash blowing E over the Gulf of Mexico were observed through 15 March, with denser plumes closer to the volcano. During 15-19 March, when observed on satellite imagery, plumes averaged ~20 km wide and 60 km long before they dissipated; altitudes were in the 5-7 km range.

Ash emission increased between 2000 on 19 March and 0300 on 20 March, when characteristic signals of eight emission events or 'puffs' were detected by the seismic monitoring network. Afterwards, the emission-event rate returned to the previous range of 4-6 events/day. This, combined with stronger winds towards the E, produced light ashfalls on towns in that direction. The 'puff' events were detected on top of a moderate level of volcanic seismicity, consisting of A- and B-type events and low-level tremor, as well as strong signals from Pacific-coast tectonic earthquakes unrelated to the volcanic activity.

On 21 March the ash emission rate remained stable. The next day, the puffs' frequency increased to ~9/day, but their size decreased. Average height of the ash plumes was ~500 m above the summit, and duration <5 minutes. This activity continued without significant changes until 25 March, when the rate of ash emissions reached 8 puffs between 1030 and 1230 before returning to a rate of 8-10/day. This condition prevailed until 28 March, when another increase in the level of activity was detected similar to that on 25 March. The ash puffs were easily recognized in the seismograms as 30-40 seconds of tremor followed by an impulsive signal, similar to seismic events in the 1994-95 episode. Although the release of seismic energy increased after 25 March, the levels never reached high values, and remained well below the energy level of 5 March. Seismicity decreased again in late March.

Plumes after 20 March continued to be visible on satellite imagery, and were interpreted based on wind data to generally have been below 7 km altitude, with some slightly higher. However, poor weather and low levels of activity limited the number of plumes identified. Aviation notices from Mexico City and observers at the Puebla airport through 4 April continued to report ash at low levels, usually within ~20-30 km of the summit, blowing in easterly directions.

On 29 March during a COSPEC flight, Lucio Cardenas, Juan Jose Ramirez, and Hugo Delgado observed a new lava dome with an area of 400 m2 on the E side of the crater floor along the rim of the inner crater (a lava dome destroyed during the 1920-27 eruption). This new lava dome was observed coming from a source outside that inner crater but flowing into the it. Another helicopter flight later that day confirmed that block-lava was flowing from a vent located between the vents opened on December 1994 and the 1919 craterlet near the center of the crater. This lava slowly flowed towards the craterlet. When the dome was checked again on 1 April lava had filled most of the inner crater (nearly 60 m deep) and increased its area to nearly 600 m2. Assuming that the lava started to flow towards the craterlet on 25 March, and that it had been almost filled by 1 April, a rough estimate of the lava extrusion rate is 5,000-6,000 m3/day.

The formation of this craterlet was described in detail by Dr. Atl, the painter-volcanologist who later studied the Parícutin eruption in detail. According to him, the bottom of the volcano crater was almost flat before 1919. That year, extruded lava formed a small dome ~35 m high and 60-70 m diameter in the base. That dome collapsed in 1923 forming the craterlet. The volume of the internal cone of the craterlet is estimated to be 40,000 m3.

A series of SO2 flux measurements was begun after January 1994 (BGVN 19:11 and 19:12). During 1995 measurements rose to nearly 8,000 metric tons/day (t/d) in March, but gradually decreased to 2,000 t/d in June. A persistent decrease in gas emissions starting in July reduced the SO2 flux to nearly 100 t/d by December 1995. During the 5 March 1996 event, renewed ash emissions coincided with SO2 fluxes of up to 15,000 t/d; by late March it was decreasing, but emission levels remained high (>5,000 t/d). Currently, the COSPEC measurements are carried out by the Instituto de Geofisica (National University of Mexico), sponsored by the Secretaria de Gobernacion (Ministry of the Interior) through CENAPRED (Disaster Prevention National Center) using an instrument borrowed from the University of Colima and a plane owned by the Mexican Navy.

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: Servando De la Cruz-Reyna (CENAPRED and Instituto de Geofisica, UNAM); Roberto Quaas Weppen, Enrique Guevara Ortiz, Bertha López Najera, and Alicia Martinez Bringas, Centro Nacional de Prevencion de Desastres (CENAPRED), México D.F., México; Hugo Delgado Granados, Instituto de Geofisica, UNAM, Circuito Cientifico C.U., 04510 Mexico D.F., México; Jim Lynch, NOAA Synoptic Analysis Branch.