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Report on Fernandina (Ecuador) — October 1988


Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 10 (October 1988)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Fernandina (Ecuador) Caldera wall collapsed; crater lake moved; lava flows, phreatic eruptions observed

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1988. Report on Fernandina (Ecuador) (McClelland, L., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 13:10. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198810-353010



0.37°S, 91.55°W; summit elev. 1476 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

The 14 September eruption led to the caldera's most dramatic changes since its floor dropped 350 m in 1968. The following account is based mainly on reports from Tui De Roy and Alfredo Carrasco, and photographs by Carrasco. Quoted material is from De Roy.

The E wall of the caldera, oversteepened since the 1968 collapse, failed, and the resulting debris avalanche covered the caldera floor, burying a 110-m-high tuff cone that had survived the 350 m drop in 1968. The caldera lake had been ~2 km in diameter, with a maximum depth in 1970 of 75 m at the SE end of the caldera. The avalanche drove it to the W and NW as a tsunami, and when it was first viewed from the rim (18-21 September) the lake had been raised by as much as 150 m, displaced to the NW, and greatly reduced in volume. The lake level dropped rapidly during those 3 days, as water percolated into the avalanche deposit below, and it was expected to disappear soon.

The eruption that apparently triggered the avalanche deposited up to 1.5 m of scoria on the caldera's ESE rim, ignited several fires in the dry brush vegetation, and destroyed the principal nesting area for Fernandina's large population of land iguanas. De Roy recognized that "fire storm" winds must have been strong, for wood on the side away from the caldera had been severely abraded by scoria and no branches thinner than a finger survived. She also measured a temperature of 45°C at 20 cm below the surface of the scoria, noting that "near the margins of the scoria field, where ground vegetation was not fully smothered, smoldering soil fires were running under the scoria, with occasional flare-ups spreading through the dry scrub." Pelé's hair was liberally distributed on the S rim ("wind-drifted heaps 5 cm thick around clumps of grass") and W flank, and reticulite was found floating 20 km S of Fernandina (and already colonized by larval crabs) 3 days after the eruption's start.

Lava flows continued after the avalanche, principally from a vent area ~ 100 m N and E of the 1973 vents, at an elevation ~ 750 m on the inner E wall. Flows coated the lower slopes and were filling in low spots on the caldera floor 18-21 September. De Roy described the hummocky avalanche deposits as "large heaps of rubble, including substantial rocks similar to the landslide accumulations along the caldera walls. [They are] scattered at random over the floor, some at least 20-30 m high, as though dumped by giant truck loads." Carrasco's photographs show low flows advancing to the W, near the former W lakeshore, to the NW between rubble masses, and to the NNW into the steaming lake remnant. These flows were moving during the 18-21 September observations, and "showed various glow points during the nights," but seemed to De Roy to be the redistribution of still-molten lava on the floor rather than continued feeding from vents.

Several phreatic explosions were witnessed from the rim, and small secondary explosion craters pockmarked many parts of the caldera floor. The largest explosion was at 1022 on 17 September as De Roy and others were ascending the NW flank of the volcano. A rumble and explosion were heard and "a billowing cloud rose rapidly over the caldera, then drifted SW, trailing black curtains of scoria or ash as well as a plume of brownish dust." Other explosions, mostly from the lava flow margins, were timed by David Day at 2330 on 17 September, 0415, 0658, and 0708 on the 18th, and 1005 on the 19th.

The E rim of the caldera, at an elevation of 1,350-1,450 m, was little changed by the 1968 collapse, but inner slopes averaged nearly 45° and were the caldera's most common sites of rock avalanches throughout the last 20 years. The lake lay at an elevation of ~ 430 m along the foot of this wall. De Roy estimates that a width "possibly as much as - but no more than - 250 m" was removed in the [main] avalanche and smaller avalanches that were continuing while the group was on the rim. A zone of nearly 3 km along the E wall has been affected. At 1403 on 19 September, David Day was on a cone ~ 200 m from the E rim "when a huge landslide removed a slice of rim perhaps 10 m thick by 40 m or so wide. This was followed immediately by a violent E-W jolt which he described as a rebound sensation. This jolt was not felt by the rest of the team on the S rim, nor were any other tremors felt during our stay." Fissures were observed in the new scoria within 50 m of the rim "sagging like glacier crevasses under snow." Landslides were common ("sometimes going on uninterrupted for an hour or more") during the group's 3 days on the rim, and the caldera was obscured by rockfall dust during much of 20-21 September.

The Nimbus-7 satellite that passes Galápagos around local noon every day has provided some interesting (and puzzling) information on SO2 distribution. Its orbit on the day of the eruption was far to the east of Fernandina and in the worst position of its 6-day cycle for measuring the eruption. It registered no SO2 on 14 September, less than an hour after the eruptive cloud was first sighted in Galápagos, but its orbit improved in the following days and so did the volcano's production of gas. On 15 September a broad SO2 plume extended from about 300 km NW of Fernandina to about 250 km SW, but no SO2 was detected as far as 400 km W. On the 16th there was a transmission problem that lost all data in a roughly E-W band 0-300 km S of Fernandina, but a weak SO2 anomaly was clear from 400 to 700 km SW. Coverage to the N and NW was good on the 16th, but no anomaly was seen in that quadrant. On the 17th there was a weak SO2 anomaly for ~200 km SW of Fernandina, and a considerably stronger one from 700-800 km SW. This was the plume's greatest distance from the volcano, but the weak local plume suggests that the source (Fernandina) was no longer supplying much volcanic gas. On the 18th there was no anomaly at all within 300 km of Fernandina, but a strong SO2 concentration (in fact the strongest of the eruption at 35 m-atm cm) 500-600 km to the SW. It is not clear why the strongest concentration of the eruption was that far (in time as well as space) from the eruption. On the 19th it had completely dispersed and no SO2 anomaly appeared on the image.

Geological Summary. Fernandina, the most active of Galápagos volcanoes and the one closest to the Galápagos mantle plume, is a basaltic shield volcano with a deep 5 x 6.5 km summit caldera. The volcano displays the classic "overturned soup bowl" profile of Galápagos shield volcanoes. Its caldera is elongated in a NW-SE direction and formed during several episodes of collapse. Circumferential fissures surround the caldera and were instrumental in growth of the volcano. Reporting has been poor in this uninhabited western end of the archipelago, and even a 1981 eruption was not witnessed at the time. In 1968 the caldera floor dropped 350 m following a major explosive eruption. Subsequent eruptions, mostly from vents located on or near the caldera boundary faults, have produced lava flows inside the caldera as well as those in 1995 that reached the coast from a SW-flank vent. Collapse of a nearly 1 km3 section of the east caldera wall during an eruption in 1988 produced a debris-avalanche deposit that covered much of the caldera floor and absorbed the caldera lake.

Information Contacts: T. De Roy and D. Day, Isla Santa Cruz; A. Carrasco and G. Reck, Charles Darwin Research Station; A. Krueger, GSFC.