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Report on Popocatepetl (Mexico) — April 1996


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 21, no. 4 (April 1996)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Popocatepetl (Mexico) Explosion on 30 April kills five climbers near the crater rim

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1996. Report on Popocatepetl (Mexico) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 21:4. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199604-341090



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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

On 29 March the growth of a viscous lava dome was observed during a COSPEC flight (BGVN 21:03). The dome grew rapidly afterwards, and ash emissions from a NE-SW fracture along the SE inner wall of the main crater continued intermittently. Apparently, the emission center of the new dome is located between this fracture and the center of the small inner crater formed during eruptions in the 1920's.

During helicopter overflights on 10, 12, 24, and 29 April, gas emissions did not allow a clear view. The height of the dome was difficult to estimate, but was at least 50 m. The dome was also growing horizontally towards the NW with a steep terminal flow front. On the SE it was leaning in part directly against the inner wall of the main crater. The small old inner crater had been totally covered by the new dome. By comparing pictures of the dome formed in the 1920's with the present dome it is clear that the present dome is already much larger.

On 30 April at 1319 a major explosion from the dome dispersed ejecta to the NE. Maximum clast diameter was 0.5 cm in the village of Xalitzintla, ~12 km NE, and sand-sized ash fell in Tlaxcala, 60 km away. Because of bad weather conditions the explosion and accompanying phenomena were not recorded by the surveillance camera. Apparently, the ejecta were warm when falling in Xalitzintla. The shower on Xalitzintla lasted for ~2 minutes. Preliminary inspection of the material indicates that it was mostly light gray juvenile dacite, very glassy with incipient vesiculation.

Five climbers who ascended the volcano in the early morning hours of 30 April were killed by the explosion later that day. On 2 May the climbers were found a few hundred meters below the NE crater rim. Their corpses, recovered by Civil Protection authorities, exhibited 3rd-degree burns and severe injuries caused by contusions. Climbing the volcano has been officially prohibited since the current eruption began, and signs were posted at Paso de Cortes.

During a helicopter flight on 3 May a depression was observed on the surface of the new dome near the SE inner wall of the main crater. Streaks of gravel and boulders running down the NE outer slopes of the volcano were 10-20-m wide and a few hundred meters long, and very close to the route of ascent taken by most climbers.

Satellite observations. Thin steam/ash plumes were observed on visible satellite imagery and by surface observers at the Puebla airport during the first half of April. Plume heights were estimated to be from just above the summit (~5.5 km elevation) up to 7.5 km altitude. Prevailing winds generally blew the plume NE or E; it often remained visible on imagery for 25-50 km before dispersing. A larger plume on 11 April extended ~80 km E at 7.6 km altitude. A thin ash plume on 13 April was visible 130 km ENE. Except for one ground report late on 18 April, there were no satellite or ground observations of ash plumes during 16-26 April. However, aviation notices of the volcanic hazard remained in effect. Volcanic ash moving E and SE at summit level was again seen from the airport beginning on 27 April; cloud cover prevented satellite observations. The plume from the 30 April explosion remained visible, although it was thinning, into that evening as it drifted over the Gulf of Mexico. Aviation notices from Mexico City and Miami, Florida, warned of possible ash up to 12 km altitude. Ground and satellite observations of ash plumes continued into May.

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: Claus Siebe, Instituto de Geofisica, UNAM, Circuito Cientifico C.U., 04510 Mexico D.F., México; NOAA/NESDIS Synoptic Analysis Branch, USA.