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Report on Arenal (Costa Rica) — December 1996


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

Arenal (Costa Rica) Ongoing vigorous eruptions the subject of visits, reports, and concerns

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1996. Report on Arenal (Costa Rica) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 21:12. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199612-345033


Costa Rica

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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

During late 1996, Arenal's ongoing Strombolian eruptions continued. OVSICORI-UNA noted that late-1996 avalanches had traveled down the N and SW flanks. For example, one at 1109 on 11 December traveled down the N flank to ~1,300 m elevation. Acidic rainfall also continued to damage vegetation.

Some noteworthy September eruptions and their associated pyroclastic flows were mentioned in BGVN 21:09. Others also occurred late in 1996; one at 0926 on 11 December reached a point on the SW flank at 1,230 m elevation. Another pyroclastic flow occurred at 1630 on 30 December reaching 1,000 m elevation.

Observations during 19-24 November. Multiple pyroclastic flows with distinct pulses were reported by Steve O'Meara, Tippy D'Auria, and Robert Benward who watched Arenal for much of five days (19-24 November 1996) from 3.8 km due N of the summit (location determined by GPS); they found it very active with eruptions occurring intermittently from five distinct vents. The group noted long-duration fountaining and jetting; on 20 November these processes were continuous for over 30 minutes. The group saw multiple eruptions discharging plumes to heights >1 km, observed ashfall, and heard window-rattling explosion noises. They watched an advancing incandescent summit lava flow lobe whose front frequently calved off and produced spectacular incandescent rockfalls and avalanches. Also, they witnessed tumbling boulders and noted periodically strong snorting and huffing noises at the summit vents associated with the escape of incandescent gas.

Sheared from the lava flow front, some of the boulders were easily the size of small cars. As the boulders fell they made audible impact bursts and broke into smaller pieces as they rolled and bounced down the mountain (sometimes reaching the 700-m elevation). The scene of the falling and breaking boulders looked similar to a fireworks display.

The source of the lava lobe appeared to be the new spatter cone on the N side of Crater C, which the flow all but encompassed. The main lobe branched into three separate ones, each a source of rock falls. A lava lobe also appeared to be moving E into the saddle between craters C and D. A new lobe was moving down Crater C's NW side.

The source of the pyroclastic flows was unclear to the group, though they thought it might be the new spatter cone. On video footage some of the pyroclastic flows were very distinct. Many of the flows were also accompanied by a sluggish, reddish, small ash eruption from what appears to be one of the five vents, though these eruptions could also have issued from the spatter cone. Pyroclastic flows traveled 100-1000 m from the summit, but stayed within well-defined channels on the W side of the latest 1996 lava flow. O'Meara was somewhat concerned to encounter an active campsite at Laguna Cedeño--right in the path of some of the pyroclastic flows--and only 2 km from the summit.

Table 19 shows a sample of some of the kinds of observations recorded during the O'Meara group's stay. During their visit they also considered the positions of the sun and moon. The group suggested that the largest eruptions may have had a possible correlation to moon phase and tidal pulls as well as moon rise and set times. It appeared that the more violent eruptions of Vent 1 occurred at intervals of 6.5 hours. Using that hypothesis, the group claimed to have successfully and confidently estimated vent 1's major blasts to within 2 minutes of the events.

Table 19. A sample of the field notes, from 20 November 1996, describing Arenal activity during the O'Meara group's 5-day visit (complete observations available upon request). Courtesy of Steven O'Meara, Tippy D'Auria, and Robert Benward.

Time Observations
1206 Eruption; vent 2.
1258 Vents degassing.
0108 Vent 5 eruption with possible pyroclastic flow.
0113-0118 Small eruptions with sustained jetting combined with summit glow; jetting episodes appear to trigger lava flow surges.
0149 More degassing and summit glow.
0215-0245 Large eruption with continuous fountaining-jetting activity for 30 minutes; several bursts of intense activity (particularly vents 1 and 4, with a single blast from vent 2).
0255 A medium eruption from twin vents; 30 seconds later a small emission at vent 4.
0252 Degassing.
0328 Small explosion.
0333 Huffing noise at vent 2; D'Aurria likens it to the snorting of a bull getting ready to charge.
0338 Large discharge of blocks from vent 2 accompanied by snorting noises.
0339 Vents 3 and 4 spitting.
0345 Medium eruption from the center vent; heavy huffing; lots of gas escaping and boulders rolling from northerly flow.
0416 Explosion followed by degassing.
0442 Vent 4 spattering.
0448 Vent 2, small amounts of spattering.
0450 Vent 1, small silent eruption.
0451 Vent 1, larger and louder eruption.
0454 Medium-to-strong eruption noted from three different vents creating a large pyroclastic flow and discharging several large lava fragments. Saw the new lava flow area in the vicinity of vent 1, W of the large block lava flow.
0509 Medium eruption from center vent.
1000 Big explosions and noise.
1036 Big explosion and noise.
1045 Small eruption and big noise.
1110 Small eruption of reddish color observed from the settlement of Tabacón.

Behavior at the five vents during the group's visit were as follows. Vents 1 and 3 were twin summit vents that appeared to be centered in Crater C. Vent 1 was the stronger of the two when they erupted separately. Both sent plumes vertically and produced prolonged roars and blasts.

Vent 2, located on the E side of Crater C, was the strongest and loudest, producing most of the house- and window-shaking eruptions. Many times the ejecta would blow out of this vent at a 45° angle toward Crater D. Sometimes, E- and N-arcing ejecta fell about a quarter of the way down the volcano's slope. This vent may have been the eastern lava lobe's source.

Vent 4 was centered on the new summit spatter cone N of Crater C. The vent ejected occasional spatter, though some long-enduring fountaining-degassing episodes also took place. Whereas vent 4 had been active when the group arrived, it was almost inactive by 22 November, though the lava flow around it continued to advance.

Vent 5, on the W side of the summit, produced very strong ash eruptions, but these events were mostly associated with muffled blasts at the observation site. Variously directed eruptions sometimes sent ejecta E, at a 45° angle toward the W, and at other times vertically.

Seismic data, recent reports, and a hazards caution. During September and November OVSICORI-UNA noted that both tremor and earthquakes were common, though not in unusual abundance (tremor duration, 300 and 237 hours; number of earthquakes, 875 and 471; respectively). Earthquakes were more abundant during October, a month when 1,094 registered, more than at any time during 1996. At the OVSICORI-UNA station, tremor duration in the previous months of 1996 had ranged between 261 and 434 hours; during October it was also moderately high (381 hours).

Some Arenal reports and abstracts that may not appear in typical European and North American literature indexes have come out recently. Five technical reports on Arenal appeared in a volume in November 1996 (ICE, 1996). The reports include discussions of 1) the volcano's behavior during the year 1993, 2) the spectral character of seismic signals and the P-wave velocity in the upper part of the edifice, 3) possible eruptions in 1915 and 1922, 4) the hazards, costs, and hazard perceptions associated with a moderate eruption, and 5) how meta-igneous, granulite facies xenoliths in Arenal lavas could provide evidence for a mafic basement. In addition, at least one of about 50 papers at a recent conference in Perú discussed hazards from Arenal (Laurent, 1996).

As a caution to people visiting or acting as guides at the popular volcano it should be noted that Melson and others (1997) have looked at the frequency of eruptions in a sample of over 196 days between 1987 and 1994. They found that hazardous pyroclastic eruptions occurred at wide-ranging intervals, from as little as a minute to over a day apart. However, 96% had a recurrence interval of <100 minutes. During these eruptions, ballistic blocks and bombs and infrequent pyroclastic flows posed the greatest hazards.

References. ICE Boletín, 1996, año 6, no. 11-12, Dirección de Ingeniería Civil, Departamento de Ingeniería Geológica, 78 p.

Laurent, K., 1996, Impacto de los desastres ocasionados por los volcanes Arenal e Irazú sobre la infraestructura energética de Costa Rica y medidas actuales para mitigar sus efectos: El Segundo Seminario Latinamericano "Volcanes, Sismos Y Prevencion" en Lima-Arequipa, Perú, del 4 al 9 de noviembre de 1996, J-C Thouret (coodinator), 178 p.

Melson, W.G., O'Hearn, T., Funk, V., Barquero, J., Barboza, V., Saenz, R., Fernandez, E., McNutt, S., and Benoit, J., 1997, Probabilistic volcanic hazard assessment, Arenal volcano, Costa Rica, 1987-95: unpublished report, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, U.S.A., 10 p.

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, V. Barboza, R. Van der Laat, E. Hernandez, M. Martinez, and R. Sáenz, Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica, Universidad Nacional (OVSICORI-UNA), Apartado 86-3000, Heredia, Costa Rica; G.J. Soto and J.F. Arias, Oficina de Sismología y Vulcanología del Arenal y Miravalles (OSIVAM), Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), Apartado 10032-1000, San José, Costa Rica; Steven O'Meara, PO Box 218, Volcano, HI 96785, USA.