In the event of a US Government shutdown, the Global Volcanism Program will remain OPEN through at least Saturday, October 7, by using prior year funds. Visit for updates.

Logo link to homepage

Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) — November 2002


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 27, no. 11 (November 2002)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) May-June quiet; late 2002 explosions send ash to ~4 km altitude

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2002. Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) (Wunderman, R., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 27:11. Smithsonian Institution.


Papua New Guinea

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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

During February-March 2002, the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) reported that volcanic and seismic activity remained low, with some low-frequency earthquakes recorded. The active vent emitted weak-to-moderate amounts of white vapor, and ground-deformation measurements showed no significant changes (BGVN 27:03).

RVO reported that Tavurvur was quiet during 20 May-2 June. The active vent continued to release variable amounts of white vapor. Occasionally, the emission changed to very thick volumes of white vapor. The smell of SO2 was evident on some days. Seismic activity remained low and a few small, low-frequency earthquakes were recorded beneath Tavurvur. Ground-deformation measurements showed a small amount of inflation, however, the long-term trend showed no significant changes.

On 20 October at 1347 an eruption took place at Tavurvur cone. News reports indicated that rocks were thrown 700 m from the summit, and no lava was erupted. They also noted that the eruption produced a thick, dark, ash plume that rose to ~3 km before dispersing to the N and NW. No ash was visible on satellite imagery due to meteorological clouds in the vicinity. News reports also stated that ash caused Tokua airport flights to be suspended on 22 October. On 23 October ash was visible at ~3.6 km altitude. The airport reopened on 27 October, with two flights permitted during the day. Reopening the airport was possible because erupted ash ceased to blow towards it.

Several small explosions occurred after the 20 October eruption, sending ash clouds to 4 km altitude. On 28 October RVO stated that a major increase in volcanic activity seemed unlikely. Low-level activity continued in early November. Ash emissions occurred at long, irregular intervals and associated ash remained below ~3 km altitude.

Very heavy ash emission was observed on 24 November. A low-level plume was produced, and no ash was visible on satellite imagery. Observations during 20-26 November revealed that the ash content in the emissions was generally decreasing, and erupted ash clouds remained below ~1.5 km altitude. The intensity of ash emission changed on 30 November from very slow to slightly forceful, and the interval between eruptions increased. Occasional moderate eruptions produced ash clouds that reached heights of 1-1.5 km above the crater. Two moderate explosions on the night of 30 November emitted visible incandescent lava fragments that showered the volcano's N and NE slopes and ash plumes that rose 100-1,200 m above the crater. During 29 November-1 December, ash plumes were blown to the E and SE. Seismicity was at a low-to-moderate level, and the signature of events changed from short to long duration. Ground deformation measurements lacked significant changes, however, the electronic tiltmeter showed slow inflation.

On 3 December RVO reported that the eruption pattern varied between sustained ash emissions lasting 1-2 minutes to discrete short duration ash emissions lasting less than 1 minute. Ash plumes ascended several hundred to 1,200 m above the summit. On the evening of 3 December ash plumes were blown N and NW, causing fine ashfall in parts of Rabaul Town.

During late November through at least 16 December, the eruption was characterized by slow, convoluted ash plumes that rose several hundred meters above the summit. There was a small amount of ash in the plumes, and minor ashfall affected areas close to the cone. Seismicity was generally at low-to-moderate levels. There was a ~2.5-minute-long period of harmonic tremor on the morning of 11 December accompanied by a pulsating noise from the volcano. Another period of harmonic tremor occurred on 13 December. Ground-deformation measurements from real-time GPS and electronic tilt showed no significant changes.

During mid-December, although the NE vent was still dominant, some plumes rose from the W side of the N crater. The eruptions at Tavurvur continued as of 16 December, with light gray or brown plumes with little ash rising several hundred to more than a thousand meters above the summit. Winds from the SE led to moderate ashfall in Rabaul, although RVO reported that variable winds made it difficult to be specific about which areas were being affected by ash.

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: Ima Itikarai, Rabaul Volcano Observatory (RVO), P.O. Box 386, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea; Darwin VAAC, Bureau of Meteorology, Northern Territory Regional Office, PO Box 40050, Casuarina Northern Territory 0811 Australia (URL:; Reuters; Pacific Island Report.