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Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) — March 2003


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 28, no. 3 (March 2003)
Managing Editor: Edward Venzke.

Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) Ash eruptions from Tavurvur continue through March

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2003. Report on Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) (Venzke, E., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 28:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN200303-252140


Papua New Guinea

4.271°S, 152.203°E; summit elev. 688 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Eruptions at Tavurvur continued to occur throughout January-March 2003. The eruptions were characterized by forceful and convoluted, sub-continuous, light to pale gray ash cloud emissions at irregular intervals. The following was provided by the Rabaul Volcano Observatory.

Activity during January 2003. During the first several days of January (except the 4th), activity was similar to late December 2002. The eruptions consisted of sub-continuous ash emissions occurring at intervals ranging from a few minutes to ~10 minutes. Many of the ash emissions were sustained for 1-2 minutes. On the 4th, activity was at a low point, shown by the fewest ash emissions of the month. Between 8 and 17 January, the pattern of eruption changed slightly to a mixture of events. The sub-continuous ash emissions persisted, but forceful emissions began as well, although not in significant numbers. A complete change in the pattern of eruptive activity began on the 18th. The sub-continuous ash emissions reduced significantly and the sharp forceful emissions became more prominent. They occurred at very short intervals of 2-4 minutes. This pattern of activity was maintained until the 26th. A lot of the forceful emissions between 20 and 26 January were accompanied by low roaring noises. Noises were also heard on the 7th. After 26 January, the magnitude of the forceful emissions eroded and activity changed back to sub-continuous ash emissions at slightly longer intervals. This trend of summit activity continued until the end of the month.

Ash plumes from the eruptive activity rose variably in height. Those from the forceful emissions rose to a maximum of about 1,500 m, while ash plumes from the sub-continuous emissions rose to several hundred meters above the summit. Variable winds blew the ash plumes to the E and SE (1-14 and 22-31 January), and N and NW (15-21 January). Rabaul Town and villages that are located N and NW from Tavurvur had fine ashfall between 15 and 21 January. The S and SE drifting ash fell mainly in the sea; however, very fine specks of it fell on Cape Gazelle including the nearby Tokua Airport, ~20 km from Tavurvur.

Seismic activity reflected the summit activity. Both the sharp forceful and the sub-continuous ash emissions generated seismic waves characteristic of their nature. Seismic waves associated with the forceful emissions had greater amplitudes reflecting greater energy. Average duration of this type of event was about 40-50 seconds. On the other hand, events associated with the sub-continuous ash emissions had lower amplitudes, and their duration ranged between one and several minutes. Only one volcano-tectonic earthquake was recorded.

During the month ground-deformation measurements showed deflation. Real-time GPS measurements showed 5-8 mm of deflation. The electronic tiltmeter showed a few microradians of down-tilt towards the perceived uplift center SE of Matupit Island and SW of Tavurvur.

Activity during February 2003. Forceful ash emissions were observed in February, but not as abundantly as in January. In February, ash emissions were slightly more frequent during the first few and last few days of the month. The emissions occurred at intervals of 4 and 10 minutes. The longest duration for an ash emission during these periods was about 4-6 minutes. Between 5 and 24 February activity fluctuated, and ash emissions occurred at intervals of several minutes. The longest duration for an ash emission during this period was about 15 minutes. This does not necessarily imply that the amount or volume of ash contained in the emissions was consistent throughout the entire duration of emission. Rather, there was higher ash content in the initial stages of the emissions, which faded thereafter to white to pale gray emissions with very little ash content.

Plume heights were similar to those in January. During the month ash plumes were blown mainly to the E and SE, and occasionally to the SW. On 3 and 4 February, some ash plumes drifted N and NW, resulting in fine ashfall in Rabaul Town and nearby villages farther downwind.

Seismic activity was dominated by the long-duration, low-amplitude, tremor-type events, associated with the convoluted, sub-continuous ash emissions. The duration of these events ranged between 2 and 19 minutes. Only one high-frequency, volcano-tectonic earthquake was recorded.

Real-time GPS measurements fluctuated in February. During the first half of the month, measurements showed an inflationary trend. This is a rebound from the month-long deflationary trend observed in January. During the second half of February, movements changed to show deflation. The electronic tiltmeter fluctuated showing no obvious trends.

Activity during March 2003. The general level of eruptive activity in March had minor fluctuations but did not deviate much from previous months. Activity during the first two weeks was a continuation of the last few days of February. Thereafter, activity waned slightly, with ash emissions occurring at slightly longer intervals, with the exception of a couple of half-days on 15 and 16 March, when ash emissions were a bit more frequent. At the same time forceful-type emissions began until about the 23rd, when rates of sub-continuous ash emissions picked up again slightly, surpassing the activity for the first two weeks of the month. The slightly increased level continued until the end of the month. A handful of forceful emissions also occurred.

Ash plumes from the March activity rose 500-1,500 m above the summit before they were blown mainly to the SE. Most ash fell immediately downwind near Tavurvur and the deserted Talvat village. Lighter ash particles drifted farther downwind and fell in the sea.

Seismicity reflected the summit activity. It consisted mainly of low-amplitude tremor-type events with durations ranging from a couple of minutes to about eight minutes. These events were associated with sub-continuous convoluted ash emissions. Short duration, higher amplitude events associated with forceful ash emissions were also recorded but were outnumbered by the former event type. Four volcano-tectonic earthquakes were recorded during the month on the 2nd (2) and 3rd (2).

Ground-deformation measurements in March showed a more distinct and consistent sense of surface movement. Both the realtime GPS and electronic tilt measurements showed inflation. The long-term trend between January and March, as per realtime GPS measurements, was characterized by diurnal-type fluctuations of peaks and troughs, the range being about 20 mm between the highest peak and lowest trough. The cumulative movement for the three-month period was deflation of ~8 mm.

A ML 6.8 tectonic earthquake occurred on 11 March. The quake, located about 120 km SE from Rabaul in offshore southern New Island, and was felt strongly at Rabaul with MM VI. It caused minor landslides in parts of the Gazelle Peninsula.

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.