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Report on Pacaya (Guatemala) — May 1998


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 23, no. 5 (May 1998)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Pacaya (Guatemala) May eruption shrouds capital in ash, harms crops, and spreads NW

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1998. Report on Pacaya (Guatemala) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 23:5. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199805-342110



14.382°N, 90.601°W; summit elev. 2569 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Pacaya erupted unusually vigorously on 20 May. As a result, ash falling in the adjacent highlands damaged crops; ash falling to the N choked the capital and its international airport; and ash located at about 10 km altitude entered the Gulf of Mexico and joined smoke from widespread forest fires. An airplane on final approach to landing at the Guatemala City airport hit ejecta, sustaining damage but landing without incident.

The outburst's greatest intensity occurred during the hours 1205-1900. For 30 hours prior to this outburst, relative quiet prevailed with the volcano generally emitting ash-bearing explosions of brown to coffee-brown color and very little incandescent lava. Beginning around 0930, explosions became continuous, and they proceeded to squirt and splatter abundant lava E and N of the active crater (MacKenney Crater).

An initial, higher-intensity phase began before noon, sending a gray ash column 800 m high. Such columns later reached roughly 1.5-2.0 km above the crater. The eruption was described in Spanish in a series of INSIVUMEH reports. Their update at 1400 on 20 May stated that ash with grain sizes up to 3-7 mm fell on Guatemala City (the capital), the center of which lies 30 km N of Pacaya. An update at 1700 told of 2.5 mm of ash at the international airport (La Aurora, ~23 km N of Pacaya) but eruptive plumes at the volcano had dropped to 200-300 m in height. The ash at the airport was described as 0.5-1.5 mm across and dark in color. About 1 mm of ash fell in part of the capital.

Although ash fell in the capital mainly during 1100-1700 on 20 May, the amount falling diminished around 1530, allowing the atmosphere to clear substantially. At 1700, Pacaya sent ash plumes 200-300 m above the summit, more typical of normal behavior at the volcano. At about 2000, the wind carried only very small particles toward the capital. Still, local vegetation tenuously held residual ash that could easily become wind blown. In response to the diminished eruptive vigor, at 2100 on 20 May the alert status was lowered from red to orange.

During the eruption, five lava flows or lobes formed, three oriented towards Cerro Chino. One of these reached 1.5 km in length and ~300-400 m in width. The two other flows proceeded down the N and S flanks for ~600 m. No lavas reached cultivated or populated areas. The eruption disrupted the crater sending blocks 2.5 m in diameter up to 1 km downslope (to "la meseta"). Ash thicknesses of 20-30 cm were reported in villages approximately 2-4 km from the volcano (including San Francisco de Sales, Calderas, Mesillas Altas, and El Bejucal).

Verbal conversations with INSIVUMEH's Eddie Sanchez indicated that ash fell on Guatemala City during 1100-1700 on 20 May. Also, volcanic bombs with masses up to 7 kg landed near Pacaya's summit (on Cerro Chino). They also learned that lapilli fell in a village a few kilometers away on Pacaya's flanks (San Francisco de Sales). Otoniel Mat¡as said the 20 May event prompted 252 people to evacuate local settlements. Authorities had several cautions for people in areas of ash fall: 1) drive at speeds below 30 km/hour; 2) avoid the use of their vehicle's windshield wipers because the ash would scratch glass; and 3) cover cisterns even though the ash was non-toxic.

Seismicity during the event on 20 May left records with amplitudes of 5-17 mm peak-to-peak and maintained RSAM values of 870 counts over 10-minute intervals.

The INSIVUMEH report at 1000 on 21 May described a substantial decrease in eruptive vigor but explosions still sent gray, ash-bearing plumes to ~800 m above the summit. A N wind with speeds of 12-17 km/hour carried ash to El Chupadero and El Caracol, spots located 2-2.5 km from the crater. This same morning, the longest lava flow had reached 1.1 km in length.

Other consequences. The previously mentioned aircraft was a commercial jet that was on final approach to the airport when it entered an ash cloud. A few seconds prior to landing, a Pacaya discharge burst forth propelling rocks into the air. Impact with these rocks damaged the pilot's forward windows (captain and first officer) but the landing was completed without further complications. Repairs and inspection were carried out over a 3-day interval; both the airline's technicians and a manufacturer's representative inspected the plane and found the engines undamaged.

At the airport, ash was removed by mechanical means (and to some extent thanks to rainfall) on 21, 22, and 23 May, returning to full service on Sunday 24 May. Rainfall during 22-24 May was never heavy but it apparently did much to wash the ash away. Not surprisingly, the ash clogged storm drains in the capital forcing crews to clean much of the 3-4 million tons of ash mechanically.

A news report in La Nación stated the National Coffee Association computed that the 20 May eruption caused "some $75 million in losses in the coffee harvest." This was the third time in recent history that Guatemala City had been ash choked: the two previous times, 1932 and 1974 were due to eruptions at Fuego, a stratovolcano that sits along the volcanic front roughly 30 km W of Pacaya.

Later activity. Other outbursts occurred during June. One on 14 June was somewhat weaker than the 20 May event; nevertheless it disrupted the crater's geometry and formed a distinct spatter cone. This outburst took place at 1045, exhaling for 10 minutes in conditions of little or no wind, sending brightly incandescent material to 1 km. The material fell harmlessly back on the crater area.

This type of comparatively short eruptive interval had been rare at Pacaya until recently; previous pulses were typically weaker and continued longer, often for 2-7 hours. The short blasts seen recently were thought to be related to water saturation of the ground associated with a wet rainy season; presumably, more groundwater has been driven toward the magma. The situation became difficult from a civil-defense policy perspective since these short, forceful pulses were typically unpredictable and could create conditions requiring rapid response in flank settlements.

Aviation reports. The NOAA/NESDIS Satellite Analysis Branch (SAB) produced tens of reports on Pacaya's mid-May and early June eruptions. For many of their reports before and well after the 20 May eruption, GOES-8 infrared, and multi spectral imagery did not indicate an ash plume, but channel 2 data often revealed a small hot spot. In accord with the rather sudden emergence of the eruption, no ash was detected during clear weather on GOES-8 visible, infrared, or multi spectral imagery through 1645 GMT on 20 May.

Hours later SAB reported a substantial ash cloud; it appeared in GOES-8 imagery taken at 1900 GMT on 20 May (table 2, first entry). Their same report noted that a sounding from Belize (station 78583) had yielded an estimated plume height of about 9-11 km altitude. The cloud extended 140 km NNE from the summit, reached a width of 46 km, and advanced NNE at about 120 km/hour. Table 2 shows a sample of some noteworthy reports posted during portions of 20-22 May.

Table 2. Several of the reports on Pacaya and its ash clouds during parts of 20-22 May put out by the NOAA/NESDIS Satellite Analysis Branch (SAB). Stated times are GMT. Courtesy of SAB.

Report Date Report Time (GMT) Report Number Observations
20 May 1998 2125 98-018 Ash cloud of dimensions and velocity discussed in text (extending to the point 16°N, 90°W).
21 May 1998 0330 98-019 The plume extended NE across Central America and into W Gulf of Mexico (from 19°N, 88°W to 21°N, 86°W ) and was 55 km wide. Plume height was about 9-12 km.
21 May 1998 0915 98-020 GOES-8 multi spectral imagery did not show any plume from the earlier eruption at 1900 GMT on May 20. The plume moved NW across Central America into the W Caribbean and dissipated as it approached W Cuba.
21 May 1998 1535 98-021 Surface observations at 1500 GMT indicated Pacaya in eruption. No plume visible on GOES-8.
21 May 1998 1745 98-022 Pacaya erupted through 1700. Although ash moved NE at about 50 knots, newly erupted ash was not discerned on GOES-8 imagery. As best as could be determined, the SIGMET issued earlier by Santo Domingo for ash to 10.4 km spread over large portions of the N Carribean was the result of ash resulting from the 1900 GMT 20 May Pacaya eruption. GOES-8 satellite imagery through 1645 GMT failed to reveal discernible ash in the Caribbean but the presence of thin diffuse ash could not be discounted.
22 May 1998 0530 98-023 Surface observations indicated an eruption from 1500 GMT on 21 May to 0530 GMT on 22 May with uncertain amounts of ash ejecting. Highly different wind velocities at different altitudes. Weather clouds obscured the satellite view of the eruption.
22 May 1998 1430 98-026 Surface observations repeatedly indicated that the eruption continued on 22 May during 0530-1300 GMT but no surface observations were reported during 0900-1200 GMT. Pilot reports around indicated ash near 9.1 km in the central Gulf of Mexico (near 24.3°N, 86.8°W). At some time during 1400-1430 GMT one pilot reported descending to an altitude of 8.2 km from 8.8 km to avoid volcanic ash. Another pilot reported no problem while flying at 10 km in the same area. At some time during 1415-1430 GMT a pilot located over 23.5°N, 86.8 observed a gray layer and smoky smell while flying at 8.8 km altitude. The pilot could not distinguish between volcanic ash and smoke. A velocity for ash moving over the central Gulf of Mexico was estimated based on upper air data from Key West, Florida: 55-65 km/hour directed ENE.

Fires, El Nino, and smoky atmospheric conditions. During May and early June INSIVUMEH reported intervals of heavy rains and fog around Pacaya. Satellite data, now available on the web (SSEC, 1998 ), also revealed intervals of cloud cover. Despite this rain at Pacaya, thousands of fires remained burning throughout the region, ~40% of them located in the Petén, an area hundreds of kilometers to the N. These fires and associated atmospheric conditions warrant further discussion as they link to both public safety and the interest in understanding the Pacaya's contribution to the atmosphere.

According to news reports, smoke from forest fires burning out of control added to the airborne ash from 300-m-tall eruption columns during 15-18 May had caused breathing problems as far away as Houston, Texas. In addition, at least one news report said that reduced visibility had made airplane landing possible only through the use of instrument guidance in Guatemala City; Honduras was forced to close its two largest airports.

What follows came from a report by the U.S. Agency for International Development (21 May 1998). The report noted that since January, more than 10,650 fires have burned some 1,200 square miles [3,108 km2] in Mexico, an area nearly the size of the state of Rhode Island. As of 21 May, approximately 277 wildfires still raged throughout Guatemala.

"During 1998, Mexico and the entire Central American region have been affected by drought exacerbated by El Nino conditions. The drought has aggravated the effects of slash and burn agricultural practices in forest and grassland areas, leaving thousands of fires burning out of control. Tropical forest, usually too humid to burn, has become extremely vulnerable to fire. In addition to making the land more arid and therefore more flammable, the droughts have eliminated the cleaning effect that rains usually have on the region's air. The ground cover burning may be the driest ever recorded in this century, which has resulted in large quantities of smoke being emitted into the atmosphere. The fires have burned more than one million acres [>4,050 km2] and severely affected visibility and air quality in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. In Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, an estimated 2,146 square miles [5,558 km2] have burned. The smoke from these fires also has entered the southern and Midwestern United States prompting local warnings for residents with respiratory conditions to limit their outdoor activities."

"According to NASA, more than 2,000 fires are currently raging in Guatemala. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City reported on May 19 that the fires are intensifying and are threatening human populations. The "red alert" on air quality declared by the Government of Guatemala (GOG) on May 15 remains in effect. Air quality monitors report that total suspended particulate levels in Guatemala City averaged 600 milligrams per cubic meter during the first two weeks of May, three times the World Health Organization maximum level. Since then, air quality has worsened significantly. According to the Embassy, the GOG's Ministry of Health's local health centers have found significant increases in respiratory ailments. The Ministry of Health says that the most heavily affected areas are Petén, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, and areas of Huehuetenango and Quiche. In Ixcan, 80% of the population are suffering from respiratory-related ailments, eye irritation, vomiting, and headaches, according to local community leaders."

References. SSEC, 1998, Real-time data, Volcano Watch (the world's ten most active volcanoes); Pacaya volcano, Guatemala: Graduate School, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), 1225 West Dayton Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706 (URL: http://www.ssec.wisc.edu/data/volcano.html).

U.S. Agency for International Development, 21 May 1998, Fiscal Year (FY) 1998 Situation Report ##2, Mexico and Central America Fires [NAT-DSR:378][OFDA-02]: U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau for Humanitarian Response (BHR), Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

Geological Summary. Eruptions from Pacaya are frequently visible from Guatemala City, the nation's capital. This complex basaltic volcano was constructed just outside the southern topographic rim of the 14 x 16 km Pleistocene Amatitlán caldera. A cluster of dacitic lava domes occupies the southern caldera floor. The post-caldera Pacaya massif includes the older Pacaya Viejo and Cerro Grande stratovolcanoes and the currently active Mackenney stratovolcano. Collapse of Pacaya Viejo between 600 and 1,500 years ago produced a debris-avalanche deposit that extends 25 km onto the Pacific coastal plain and left an arcuate scarp inside which the modern Pacaya volcano (Mackenney cone) grew. The NW-flank Cerro Chino crater was last active in the 19th century. During the past several decades, activity has consisted of frequent Strombolian eruptions with intermittent lava flow extrusion that has partially filled in the caldera moat and covered the flanks of Mackenney cone, punctuated by occasional larger explosive eruptions that partially destroy the summit.

Information Contacts: Eddie Sanchez and Otoniel Matías, Seccion Vulconologia, INSIVUMEH (Instituto Nacional de Sismologia, Vulcanologia, Meteorologia e Hydrologia) of the Ministerio de Communicaciones, Transporte y Obras Publicas, 7A Avenida 14-57, Zona 13, Guatemala City, Guatemala; NOAA/NESDIS Satellite Analysis Branch, Room 401, 5200 Auth Road, Camp Springs, MD 20746, USA; La Nación, San José, Costa Rica; U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau for Humanitarian Response (BHR), Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA); Tom Fox, Air Navigation Bureau, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), 999 University St., Montreal H3C 5H7, Canada (URL: https://www.icao.int/safety/airnavigation/); Tom Casadevall, U.S. Geological Survey, National Center, Reston, VA 20192.