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Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) — December 1996


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 21, no. 12 (December 1996)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) Tavurvur's 4-5 October eruptions yield the largest lava flow in over 200 years

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1996. Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 21:12. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199612-252140


Papua New Guinea

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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Strong Strombolian eruptions occurred at Tavurvur on 4-5 October, but activity was generally low during November and December. Before the eruptions in October, activity consisted of weak to moderate emissions of white vapor and occasional ash clouds that rose ~600 m above the crater. Some of the ash emissions were accompanied by roaring noises. Light ashfall was observed to the N and NW. Three moderate explosions occurred at 1209 on 3 October, and at 0017 and 0219 on 4 October, producing dark gray ash clouds 3-4 km high.

Strombolian eruptions started with emissions of dark gray ash clouds at 1200 on 4 October. At that time, real-time seismic amplitude measurement (RSAM) values were 30-50. Eruptive activity gradually increased, with more frequent emissions of thick, dark gray ash clouds. The activity rapidly increased at 1430, and peaked at 1450 with an RSAM value of ~680. Activity quickly declined after only 20 minutes, to an RSAM value of 300 by about 1700. Activity soon increased again, and reached another peak at about 2000 with an RSAM value of 800. Frequent loud explosions rattled windows and doors 7-8 km from the crater, and were heard as far as 40 km away. Red incandescent lava fragments were frequently projected ~1 km above the crater. Some of the ejecta were 1-2 m in diameter during the peak eruptions. The hot and plastic ejecta were deformed during flight.

Beginning at 2000, the eruptive activity slightly decreased and RSAM values dropped to ~710 in two hours, then the activity increased again and peaked at about 2320. According to the RSAM data, activity remained almost unchanged from then until 0820 the next morning with a constant RSAM value of ~860. From 0820 on 5 October, the activity began to decline, accompanied by frequent explosions. The frequency of explosions peaked at 1700 on 5 October (~150 explosions/hour), and decreased exponentially, with only ~20 explosions/hour at 0700 on 6 October. The last relatively large explosion occurred on 25 October.

During the strong phase of Strombolian eruptions, a significant amount of lava was erupted. Effusive activity began around 0130 on 5 October. Lava flowed to the S of the vent, covering a large area of coconut plantation and burying two houses. Three lobes of the lava flow moved into the sea, ~1.6 km from the vent. The volume of lava was estimated at 4-5 x 106 m3, the largest amount produced at Tavurvur in more than 200 years. Effusive activity occurred at Tavurvur during the 1994 eruption (BGVN 19:08-19:10), with a lava flow of ~0.4 x 106 m3.

Ash clouds produced by the Strombolian eruptions and the subsequent large explosions rose 3-4 km above the crater. Light ash fell on the N, NW, W, SW, and SE areas of the caldera. Moderate, damp ashfall was observed on Matupit Island 1.5 km W of the vent.

A low level of eruptive activity occurred at Tavurvur during November and December, with very weak to moderate emissions of white vapor. However, emissions of small volumes of pale gray ash took place twice in December, the first on 6-7 December. Pale gray emissions with a very low ash content began on the morning of 6 December, then gradually changed to weak, white vapor the next day. The ash clouds rose ~3 km above the crater before being blown to the NE, NW, and W. Very light ashfall was observed on 7 December in Rabaul Town, ~5 km NW of the crater. The second ash emission began on 27 December and was continuing at the end of the month.

During October-December, 27 high-frequency earthquakes were recorded. Two events on 24 December were felt with an intensity of III. During November and December, seismicity was generally low; the only seismic increases were associated with the two ash-emission episodes.

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, I. Itikarai, and P. de Saint Ours, Rabaul Volcano Observatory (RVO), P.O. Box 386, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.