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Report on San Cristobal (Nicaragua) — October 1998

San Cristobal

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 23, no. 10 (October 1998)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

San Cristobal (Nicaragua) Heavy rains from hurricane Mitch result in deadly avalanche and lahar from Casita

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1998. Report on San Cristobal (Nicaragua) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 23:10. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199810-344020

San Cristobal


12.702°N, 87.004°W; summit elev. 1745 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

On 30 October 1998 a disastrous event (called a "mudflow" in newspapers) occurred on the S flank of Casita volcano. According to official reports, the incident killed between 1,560 and 1,680 people, displaced hundreds more, destroyed several towns and settlements, and disrupted the Pan American Highway at numerous bridges. On 11 and 12 November the first scientific team visited the volcano to investigate the disaster. The team examined the summit area on the first day and made a complete traverse of the devastated zone as far S as the Pan American Highway on the second day. This report presents the team's conclusions and provides some recommendations regarding future risks.

Background. Casita is within the Cordillera Maribios, a 70-km-long volcanic chain that extends from the N shore of Lake Managua to the vicinity of Chinandega. Casita is part of the San Cristóbal volcanic complex, which consists of five principal volcanic edifices. The largest volcano in Nicaragua, San Cristóbal lies 4 km WNW of Casita and has exhibited frequent episodes of historical activity; at present it is emitting a vigorous fumarolic plume. For these reasons San Cristóbal has been studied in greater detail.

Casita is a composite volcano with deeply dissected morphology. The top of the volcano consists of a cluster of dacite domes. At its summit is a 1-km diameter crater that could be reached by a road - now impassable - to service telecommunication towers. A set of prominent NE-trending normal faults cut the summit area bounding each side of the crater. Explosion craters on the southern plain are aligned along a conjugate set of fractures trending NW-SE. No historical volcanic activity has been reported at Casita; however, the domes of the summit area are autobrecciated and exhibit strong hydrothermal alteration, which is consistent with low-temperature fumarolic activity.

Meteorological conditions. Hurricane Mitch was a major factor in the disaster. Abnormal rainfall related to Mitch began on 25 October. By 27 October the precipitation reached 100 mm/day and increased continuously to a maximum of ~500 mm/day on 30 October, the day of the avalanche. The total rainfall in October was 1,984 mm. Within three days, precipitation dropped to normal levels. For comparison, the average rainfall for October is 328 mm; thus the rainfall associated with the disaster was more than 6 times the average.

Source zone. The main source of the avalanche was 200 m SW of the volcano summit, and 60 to 80 m below the telecommunication towers. A secondary source was located at the same elevation but 100 m SE of the summit. The rock in this area is a hydrothermally altered and brecciated dacite dome. The principal rupture occurred along a ~500-m-long segment of a NE-trending fault that intersects the summit. A slab measuring ~20 m thick, 60 m high, and 150 m long detached slid down the fault plane that was inclined about 45 degrees SE. The volume of source block for the first rockslide was ~200,000 m3.

Avalanche event. Inhabitants of the lower plains described the sound of the avalanche as similar to a helicopter. Multiple witnesses gave the time as between 1030 and 1100 on 30 October. The main slide mass immediately shattered into its original breccia blocks coated by vein precipitates. The initial SE movement of the avalanche blocks was deflected to the SW along a deep gully oriented parallel to the fault. A smaller part of the avalanche surmounted a small ridge and continued SE towards the village of Argelia.

For the first 2 km the main avalanche remained confined to a narrow valley. The top of the flow was 150 to 250 m wide; its depth, 30 to 60 m. A typical cross section of the peak flow was 7,500 to 9,000 m2. The flow swashed back and forth on its downward course. Super-elevation calculations at locations of overbank flow gave a velocity of ~15 m/s in the upper reaches. Deposits high on the volcano consisted of altered dacite blocks up to meter-size. They contained essentially no matrix, with the finest particles centimeter-sized. The margin of the avalanche was sharp and flying rocks scarred the adjacent trees at 2-3 m height. A few trees were decapitated at heights of several meters.

At a prominent break in slope 2-3 km from the source, large ramps of avalanche materials formed imbricate ridges. Here the deposits, 4-6 m thick, still lacked matrix. The avalanche materials were essentially clast supported. The avalanche scoured blocks of lava from the walls, and up to 10 m deep into clay-rich soil in the base of the valley where it passed.

Lahar runout flow. Soon after the onset of the avalanche, a lahar runout flow, as defined in Scott (1988), initiated from the major accumulation zone of the primary avalanche. In other words, the source of the lahar runout flow formed in the thickest accumulation of debris at the mouth of the avalanche valley, 3 km from the summit and 3 km above the towns of El Porvenir (formerly Augusto Cesar Sandino) and Rolando Rodriguez. The populations of these two towns were respectively 600 and 1,250 according to the last census. The location of the sites of El Porvenir and Rolando Rodriguez could only be found by GPS data; there remained almost no evidence of former human habitation.

Apparently the lahar runout flow resulted from rapid dewatering of the saturated avalanche. The flood surge moved as a hyperconcentrated flow, depositing a thin (~40 cm thick) layer of gravel with some clay matrix on the overbank zones, and transporting meter-size blocks within the incised channels. The peak height of the flood surge was 3 m as it entered El Porvenir, as evidenced by stripped bark from the few standing trees. Nearly all vegetation and soil was removed by the leading edge of the wave. However, a few islands of vegetation were spared on some hills. The width of the flood surge in its upper reaches was ~1,500 m. Assuming an average peak depth of about 3 m, this yields a cross sectional area of flood surge at 4,500 m2.

Casualties and damage. Based on observations in the field, the towns of El Porvenir and Rolando Rodriguez were destroyed beyond recognition. It is unknow how many people survived. Visible cadavers and dead livestock on the overbank had been burned for sanitary reasons. Many other small hamlets, residences, and farms were destroyed.

Future hazard potential. The disaster of 30 October, was produced by the coincidence of two discrete events: extraordinarily heavy rains and an avalanche. Neither of these alone would have produced such extensive damage to the surrounding area. In this respect note that the towns of El Porvenir and Rolando Rodriguez were established only a few decades ago in this area of high geologic risk. To reduce threats for new settlements, comprehensive geologic hazard studies can help identify regions with elevated risk.

In the absence of another episode of heavy rainfall, the new deposits seem to be stable. In fact, there is little mud or silt within the deposits at higher elevations to facilitate remobilization. However, the conditions near the summit that favored the rockslide avalanche still exist. Altered and fractured dacite occurs on steep slopes at a high elevation. Destabilizing events, such as an earthquake or torrential rains, could produce another avalanche in an adjacent area. The probability of such an extreme avalanche seems remote. However, an assessment of the associated hazards and risks should be undertaken.

Reference. Scott, Kevin M., 1988, Origins, behavior, and sedimentology of lahars and lahar-runout flows in the Toutle-Cowlitz River system: U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 1447-A, 74 p.

Geological Summary. The San Cristóbal volcanic complex, consisting of five principal volcanic edifices, forms the NW end of the Marrabios Range. The symmetrical 1745-m-high youngest cone, named San Cristóbal (also known as El Viejo), is Nicaragua's highest volcano and is capped by a 500 x 600 m wide crater. El Chonco, with several flank lava domes, is located 4 km W of San Cristóbal; it and the eroded Moyotepe volcano, 4 km NE of San Cristóbal, are of Pleistocene age. Volcán Casita, containing an elongated summit crater, lies immediately east of San Cristóbal and was the site of a catastrophic landslide and lahar in 1998. The Plio-Pleistocene La Pelona caldera is located at the eastern end of the complex. Historical eruptions from San Cristóbal, consisting of small-to-moderate explosive activity, have been reported since the 16th century. Some other 16th-century eruptions attributed to Casita volcano are uncertain and may pertain to other Marrabios Range volcanoes.

Information Contacts: Michael F. Sheridan, SUNY, Buffalo, New York; Claus Siebe, UNAM, Mexico; Christophe Bonnard, EPFL Lausanne, Switzerland; Wilfried Strauch; Martha Navarro, Jorge Cruz Calero, and Nelson Buitrago Trujillo, INETER, Nicaragua.