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Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) — April 1996

Soufriere Hills

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

Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) Significant explosions and pyroclastic flows; vigorous dome growth

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1996. Report on Soufriere Hills (United Kingdom) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 21:4. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199604-360050

Soufriere Hills

United Kingdom

16.72°N, 62.18°W; summit elev. 915 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Volcanic activity in the summit crater was very high during early April, but explosions decreased in the second half of the month. Dome growth, most conspicuously in the form of spines, remained vigorous. Activity late in the month was dominated by small to moderate-sized rockfalls with associated ash clouds. Steam production was almost continuous, along with SO2 emission, throughout the month. Episodes of low-amplitude broadband tremor, usually <1 hour duration, were also recorded, but there were few long-period or shallow volcano-tectonic earthquakes. No major deformation events were detected.

Eruptive activity on 3 April began at 0652 with a small explosion (BGVN 21:03). Near-continuous seismic activity afterwards was a result of more small explosions and ash emission from the dome. After a reassessment of the situation by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory at 1300, the civil authorities began an evacuation of the S part of the island. At 1518, an eruption generated a significant pyroclastic flow in the Tar River valley area and an ash plume that rose to ~6 km altitude. Further pyroclastic flows in the same area were generated at 1808 and 1818. These pyroclastic flows slightly overtopped the N embankment of the Tar River valley but caused no destruction to property in Long Ground, ~2 km NE of the dome. Fires started by the pyroclastic flows continued for several days in the Tar River area.

Several smaller explosions and rockfalls during 4-5 April generated clouds that deposited ash in Plymouth and environs. The most significant of these was a moderately strong explosive eruption at about 1253 on 5 April that produced a column to ~1,500 m altitude and a small pyroclastic flow into the Tar River valley. A series of eruptions starting at 0839 on 6 April generated ash plumes up to ~3 km high and sent at least six small pyroclastic flows into the Tar River area. After 1337 the activity level increased again, with continuous ash emission and several ash plumes. At 1445, a significant explosive eruption began and continued for about an hour. It consisted of two main pulses that sent ash to ~9 km altitude and generated a relatively large pyroclastic flow. Several small-to-moderate eruptions produced ash columns and possibly small pyroclastic flows in the Tar River valley again that afternoon.

A new spine observed close to the center of the dome on the morning of 4 April was ~828 m above sea level at mid-morning the next day. By 6 April it had grown to ~906 m elevation and was visible from many points around the island; by 7 April the spine was taller than Chance's Peak (the highest topographic feature on Montserrat at 915 m). A moderate explosion at 0659 on 7 April was heard at the Bramble Airport ~6 km NE of English's Crater and fed an eruptive column that deposited ash to the NW. During the night of 7 April the top half of the spine broke off but the remnant continued to grow from the base throughout 8 April so that once again it became higher than Chance's Peak; this spine was the largest seen so far. On 8 April there was another series of eruptions, including two large explosions at 1354 and 1357. During this period, near-continuous pyroclastic flows moved into the Tar River valley, and several large ash clouds drifted out to sea. The pyroclastic flows did not reach as far as those on 3 April, but some trees in the Tar River valley were set on fire.

Activity in the crater area during 11-17 April was dominated by rockfalls and explosions creating small ash clouds. The spine that began rising on 5 April collapsed on 12 April towards the SW. A pyroclastic flow from this event was observed at 1559 on 12 April, but remained confined to the upper part of the Tar River valley away from inhabited areas. A twenty-five minute period of explosions and rockfalls began at 2037 on 13 April. On 15 April a new spine was growing to the E of the remnant of the last spine. Break-up of this feature and further break-up of the remnant spine occurred on 17 April.

Seismicity in early April was dominated by rockfalls, but beginning on 7 April hybrid earthquakes centered beneath English's Crater at shallow depths (<2 km) increased in frequency. These events occurred at rates varying from a minimum of 1-2 every 5 minutes (12-24/hour) to a maximum of ~5/minute (300/hour). This intense hybrid type of seismicity, thought to result from dome growth, continued through 17 April. RSAM data showed a steady increase in energy release up to the evening of 15 April when it dropped to low levels. By 17 April the hybrid events were occurring every 2 minutes (30/hour).

A new spine, which had grown over a period of no more than 36 hours, was seen on 18 April. The top of the spine was measured at ~911 m elevation, 30 m above the top of the dome. A smaller spine was observed on the morning of 19 April, with a height of ~20 m. The large spine appeared to fracture on 20 April and the debris fell to the base of the NE part of the old dome. Another small spine was seen in the same location on 24 April. Rockfalls were observed throughout the week, with the largest ones producing significant ash clouds at 1237 on 18 April, 1511 on 21 April, and 0635 on 22 April. The 21 April event generated an ash cloud to 1,700-2,000 m above sea level and sent a small pyroclastic flow ~300 m down the Tar River valley, producing an ash cloud to ~1,300 m altitude.

The number of hybrid earthquakes quadrupled on 18 April, to ~2 events/minute (120/hour). Seismicity then declined gradually back to ~30/hour by 24 April. The longest period of broadband tremor was 8 hours, between 1700 on 23 April and 0100 on 24 April. Volcano-tectonic earthquakes were recorded on 20, 22, and 23 April. The first two were located N of the crater, beneath Farrells Mountain at 0.25 and 4 km depth. During the last week of April, the small repetitive hybrid earthquakes occurred every 2-3 minutes (20-30/hour) but with reduced amplitude. A few volcano-tectonic earthquakes were located, one at a depth of 2 km SE of the South Soufriere Hills. Several very small earthquakes were recorded by the Gages seismic station during this period. Similar swarms have been identified in records from that station, especially during July and August 1995.

Throughout April, measurements to the EDM reflector on the upper flank of Castle Peak dome from both Long Ground and White's Yard continued to show the slow shortening trend of ~1 mm/day observed since late November 1995. The reflector on Gage's Wall was obscured by ash. Occupation of the Dagenham-Amersham-Upper Amersham-Chance's Steps EDM network showed that the very small changes (on the order of 0.3 mm/day) are continuing from December 1995. Two GPS base networks were established in late April. The first is a relatively large-scale network with line lengths of ~7 km. The second is a denser network of 18 stations on the flanks, with an average inter-station spacing of 2 km. This covers most of the volcano, except for the SE sector. No changes have yet been detected above the 1-cm precision of the technique.

Accurate angular measurements of features on the dome have been combined with measurements made from photographs to build a topographic model. This has been compared with a digital terrain model of the old English's Crater and gives a dome volume on 18 April of 9.5 ± 0.5 x 106 m3. This volume gives a mean extrusion rate of ~70,000 m3/day since 30 November 1995.

There has been uncertainty as to whether or not some of the larger ash columns were generated by explosions. The recent ash deposits are uniformly fine-grained, with no clasts above ash-size getting outside the crater. This is inconsistent with an explosive model, where larger ballistic clasts and deposition of lapilli might be expected. A video of one of the smaller pyroclastic flows showed a sizeable thermally convective column being generated when the flow hit the crater wall. Thus the evidence so far indicates that the ash columns are generated from the pyroclastic flows and rockfalls and not from explosions.

Soufriere Hills volcano sits on the N flank of the older South Soufriere Hills volcano, located at the S end of Montserrat Island (13 x 8 km). The summit area consists primarily of a series of ESE-trending lava domes. Block-and-ash flow and surge units associated with dome growth predominate in flank deposits. Pyroclastic-flow deposits associated with the formation of English's Crater have been dated at around 19,000 years BP (before present). A series of eruptions dated at 16,000-24,000 years BP pre-dates the Castle Peak dome in the crater by an unknown period of time. English's Crater is breached to the E. Periods of increased seismicity below Soufriere Hills were reported in 1897-98, 1933-37, and again in 1966-67. There were no reported historical eruptions, but some deposits and features have a young appearance. A radiocarbon date of ~320 ± 54 years BP from a NE-flank pyroclastic-flow deposit is significantly younger than other radiocarbon dates from the volcano, and could have resulted from the latest activity of Castle Peak.

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: Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO), c/o Chief Minister's Office, PO Box 292, Plymouth, Montserrat (URL: http://www.mvo.ms/).