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Report on Ambrym (Vanuatu) — March 2020


Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 45, no. 3 (March 2020)
Managing Editor: Edward Venzke. Edited by Kadie L. Bennis.

Ambrym (Vanuatu) Fissure eruption in December 2018 produces an offshore pumice eruption after lava lakes drain

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2020. Report on Ambrym (Vanuatu) (Bennis, K.L., and Venzke, E., eds.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 45:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN202003-257040



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

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

Ambrym is an active volcanic island in the Vanuatu archipelago consisting of a 12 km-wide summit caldera. Benbow and Marum are two currently active craters within the caldera that have produced lava lakes, explosions, lava flows, ash, and gas emissions, in addition to fissure eruptions. More recently, a submarine fissure eruption in December 2018 produced lava fountains and lava flows, which resulted in the drainage of the active lava lakes in both the Benbow and Marum craters (BGVN 44:01). This report updates information from January 2019 through March 2020, including the submarine pumice eruption during December 2018 using information from the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department (VMGD) and research by Shreve et al. (2019).

Activity on 14 December 2018 consisted of thermal anomalies located in the lava lake that disappeared over a 12-hour time period; a helicopter flight on 16 December confirmed the drainage of the summit lava lakes as well as a partial collapse of the Benbow and Marum craters (figure 49). During 14-15 December, a lava flow (figure 49), accompanied by lava fountaining, was observed originating from the SE flank of Marum, producing SO2 and ash emissions. A Mw 5.6 earthquake at 2021 on 15 December marked the beginning of a dike intrusion into the SE rift zone as well as a sharp increase in seismicity (Shreve et al., 2019). This intrusion extended more than 30 km from within the caldera to beyond the east coast, with a total volume of 419-532 x 106 m3 of magma. More than 2 m of coastal uplift was observed along the SE coast due to the asymmetry of the dike from December, resulting in onshore fractures.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 49. Sentinel-2 thermal satellite images of Ambrym before the December 2018 eruption (left), and during the eruption (right). Before the eruption, the thermal signatures within both summit craters were strong and after the eruption, the thermal signatures were no longer detected. A lava flow was observed during the eruption on 15 December. Sentinel-2 atmospheric penetration (bands 12, 11, 8A) images courtesy of Sentinel Hub Playground.

Shreve et al. (2019) state that although the dike almost reached the surface, magma did not erupt from the onshore fractures; only minor gas emissions were detected until 17 December. An abrupt decrease in the seismic moment release on 17 December at 1600 marked the end of the dike propagation (figure 50). InSAR-derived models suggested an offshore eruption (Shreve et al., 2019). This was confirmed on 18-19 December when basaltic pumice, indicating a subaqueous eruption, was collected on the beach near Pamal and Ulei. Though the depth and exact location of the fissure has not been mapped, the nature of the basaltic pumice would suggest it was a relatively shallow offshore eruption, according to Shreve et al. (2019).

Figure (see Caption) Figure 50. Geographical timeline summary of the December 2018 eruptive events at Ambrym. The lava lake level began to drop on 14 December, with fissure-fed lava flows during 14-15 December. After an earthquake on 15 December, a dike was detected, causing coastal uplift as it moved E. As the dike continued to propagate upwards, faulting was observed, though magma did not breach the surface. Eventually a submarine fissure eruption was confirmed offshore on 18-19 December. Image modified from Shreve et al. (2019).

In the weeks following the dike emplacement, there was more than 2 m of subsidence measured at both summit craters identified using ALOS-2 and Sentinel-1 InSAR data. After 22 December, no additional large-scale deformation was observed, though a localized discontinuity (less than 12 cm) measured across the fractures along the SE coast in addition to seismicity suggested a continuation of the distal submarine eruption into late 2019. Additional pumice was observed on 3 February 2019 near Pamal village, suggesting possible ongoing activity. These surveys also noted that no gas-and-steam emissions, lava flows, or volcanic gases were emitted from the recently active cracks and faults on the SE cost of Ambrym.

During February-October 2019, onshore activity at Ambrym declined to low levels of unrest, according to VMGD. The only activity within the summit caldera consisted of gas-and-steam emissions, with no evidence of the previous lava lakes (figure 51). Intermittent seismicity and gas-and-steam emissions continued to be observed at Ambrym and offshore of the SE coast. Mével et al. (2019) installed three Trillium Compact 120s posthole seismometers in the S and E part of Ambrym from 25 May to 5 June 2019. They found that there were multiple seismic events, including a Deep-Long Period event and mixed up/down first motions at two stations near the tip of the dike intrusion and offshore of Pamal at depths of 15-20 km below sea level. Based on a preliminary analysis of these data, Mével et al. (2019) interpreted the observations as indicative of ongoing volcanic seismicity in the region of the offshore dike intrusion and eruption.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 51. Aerial photograph of Ambrym on 12 August 2019 showing gas-and-steam emissions rising from the summit caldera. Courtesy of VMGD.

Seismicity was no longer reported from 10 October 2019 through March 2020. Thermal anomalies were not detected in satellite data except for one in late April and one in early September 2019, according to MODIS thermal infrared data analyzed by the MIROVA system. The most recent report from VMGD was issued on 27 March 2020, which noted low-level unrest consisting of dominantly gas-and-steam emissions.


Shreve T, Grandin R, Boichu M, Garaebiti E, Moussallam Y, Ballu V, Delgado F, Leclerc F, Vallée M, Henriot N, Cevuard S, Tari D, Lebellegard P, Pelletier B, 2019. From prodigious volcanic degassing to caldera subsidence and quiescence at Ambrym (Vanuatu): the influence of regional tectonics. Sci. Rep. 9, 18868. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-55141-7.

Mével H, Roman D, Brothelande E, Shimizu K, William R, Cevuard S, Garaebiti E, 2019. The CAVA (Carnegie Ambrym Volcano Analysis) Project - a Multidisciplinary Characterization of the Structure and Dynamics of Ambrym Volcano, Vanuatu. American Geophysical Union, Fall 2019 Meeting, Abstract and Poster V43C-0201.

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: Geo-Hazards Division, Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-Hazards Department (VMGD), Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Energy, Environment and Disaster Management, Private Mail Bag 9054, Lini Highway, Port Vila, Vanuatu (URL: http://www.vmgd.gov.vu/, https://www.facebook.com/VanuatuGeohazardsObservatory/); MIROVA (Middle InfraRed Observation of Volcanic Activity), a collaborative project between the Universities of Turin and Florence (Italy) supported by the Centre for Volcanic Risk of the Italian Civil Protection Department (URL: http://www.mirovaweb.it/); Sentinel Hub Playground (URL: https://www.sentinel-hub.com/explore/sentinel-playground); Global Sulfur Dioxide Monitoring Page, Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (NASA/GSFC), 8800 Greenbelt Road, Goddard, Maryland, USA (URL: https://so2.gsfc.nasa.gov/).