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Report on Ambrym (Vanuatu) — September 2003


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 28, no. 9 (September 2003)
Managing Editor: Edward Venzke.

Ambrym (Vanuatu) Lava visible in six vents during September; lava lake activity and ash emissions

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2003. Report on Ambrym (Vanuatu) (Venzke, E., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 28:9. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN200309-257040



16.25°S, 168.12°E; summit elev. 1334 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

John Seach previously reported his observations of the Ambrym caldera made during a visit in December 2002 (BGVN 27:12). This report contains his observations of the caldera during a 7-11 September 2003 visit and flyovers on 6 and 13 September. The level of activity during September 2003, with visible lava in six vents, was higher than that during his previous visit.

Observations of Benbow. During the 6 September flyover, two white plumes were rising 200 m above the crater rim and drifting NW. On the evening of 7 September, orange glows were seen from the caldera edge (3 km SE). A strong glow originated N of the crater and the central crater pit produced a less intense fluctuating glow. During the 13 September flyover, both pits continued to emit white and light-brown plumes to 200 m above the rim.

Observations of Mbogon Niri Mbwelesu. Large white vapor emissions from the collapse pit formed mushroom-shaped clouds on 6 September that drifted W and attained a height of 300 m. A visit to the S rim on 7 September showed a weak orange glow and copious gas emissions. On 8 September, observations from the N rim showed the pit full of swirling brown and white vapor. The NW wall was stained with yellow and red deposits, and pungent sulfurous gases were being emitted. Loud, rhythmic degassing sounds were heard every few seconds. The bottom of the pit was visible on 10 September, allowing views of two glowing red holes 150 m below the rim separated by a small wall a few meters wide. The two vents degassed simultaneously, but the E vent emitted larger amounts of brown ash.

Observations of Niri Mbwelesu. During the 6 September overflight, the pit of Niri Mbwelesu crater was filled with white vapor. The crater was climbed on 8 September and observations from the S rim showed the crater still filled with vapor; no sounds were heard. During that evening, an orange glow was observed. Excellent visibility on 10 September enabled sighting of a 10-m-diameter, crusted lava pond. Red lava was visible through surface cracks, and lava spatter rose 10 m above them at infrequent intervals.

Loud cannon-like explosions about every 20 minutes shook the ground and were accompanied by the sounds of cracking rock. During the evening, glowing projectiles were ejected into the air, although none fell outside the crater. Loud, roaring degassing noises like a jet engine at take-off were also heard. The roar would gain intensity over 30 seconds, cease for 15 seconds and then re-start. During periods of intense roaring, red lava was observed through cracks in the crusted surface.

Both types of intense degassing were accompanied by gentle emissions of brown vapor. A pit, 6 m in diameter, located N of the crusted pond in the crater wall, emitted brown ash. Fumaroles were high on the N inner crater wall. Brown ash was emitted from the S crater floor.

Observations of Mbwelesu. Mbwelesu crater was observed for 3 hours during mid-day on 8 September from a position on the SW rim. At times, the crater was filled with vapor, but observation of the lake surface was only possible about 60% of the time. The lava lake showed remarkable similarities in location, size, and dynamics compared to December 2002. The 50-m-diameter lava lake was contained inside a circular funnel-shaped pit 100-120 m in diameter. Violent agitation of the surface occurred most of the time. Lava splashed onto the pit walls and drained back vertically 25 m into the pit.

Large 10-m-diameter gas bubbles burst in the SE half of the lava lake with up to eight bubbles visible at the same time. Jets of lava were ejected every few seconds, created by wave intersections from the bursting bubbles. During periods of low activity, lasting tens of seconds, lava drained back into the middle of the pit. Surface crusting occurred after as little as one minute during quiet periods. Subsequently, the crust was broken up by a resumption of degassing from the SW side of the pit. On several occasions, up to 80% of the lava lake surface was covered by darker crust.

Acid rain was experienced on the edge of the crater and observers felt minor burning on the face. White, light-brown, and blue-tinged vapors smelling of sulfur were emitted from the crater.

Mbwelesu was scaled again on 10 September and observations of the lava lake (figure 10) were made over eight hours. The crater was clear, enabling detailed observations. At times 80% of the lake surface was deformed by bubbling. The SE portion of the pit contained the most degassing. Violent explosions regularly sprayed orange lava mixed with black crust in all directions. At one point the whole lake surface rotated clockwise and lava drained back into the middle of the pit. This whirlpool was followed by an avalanche on the W side of the pit that threw black material into the lake. A second pit with a diameter of 75 m NE of the lava lake was separated by an unstable 10-m-wide wall from which numerous avalanches occurred during the day; red lava spatter was ejected once.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 10. Lava lake inside Mbwelesu crater at Ambrym on 10 September 2003. Surface crusting and degassing are clear, note new crater at top of photo. Courtesy of John Seach.

An afternoon flyover on 13 September enabled excellent views of the active lava lake. The smaller pit NE of the lava lake contained a small lava pond with a diameter of ~ 8-10 m.

Observations of Marum. Two areas of fumarolic activity were seen at the edge of the 1953 crater (between Marum and Mbwelesu). Brown ash was being emitted from the ground at these locations.

Geological Summary. Ambrym, a large basaltic volcano with a 12-km-wide caldera, is one of the most active volcanoes of the New Hebrides Arc. A thick, almost exclusively pyroclastic sequence, initially dacitic then basaltic, overlies lava flows of a pre-caldera shield volcano. The caldera was formed during a major Plinian eruption with dacitic pyroclastic flows about 1,900 years ago. Post-caldera eruptions, primarily from Marum and Benbow cones, have partially filled the caldera floor and produced lava flows that ponded on the floor or overflowed through gaps in the caldera rim. Post-caldera eruptions have also formed a series of scoria cones and maars along a fissure system oriented ENE-WSW. Eruptions have apparently occurred almost yearly during historical time from cones within the caldera or from flank vents. However, from 1850 to 1950, reporting was mostly limited to extra-caldera eruptions that would have affected local populations.

Information Contacts: John Seach, PO Box 4025, Port Vila, Vanuatu (URL: http://www.volcanolive.com/).