Mechanisms and implications of the 2011 eruption of Nabro volcano, Eritrea

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Geography


The eruption of Nabro in Eritrea is of great scientific interest and has had substantial impacts even in the remote part of Afar in which it is located. It is sited in the extensional zone of Afar, but just south of the Mesozoic crustal block of the Danakil Alps. It is a predominantly trachytic edifice, with an 8-km-diameter caldera and associated ignimbrites. This is the first eruption of Nabro on record, highlighting the potential of caldera systems to erupt without warning. It is also the first seismicity of note recorded in this particular part of the rift. Comparatively little is known about magma differentiation, storage and transport mechanisms and eruptive processes in such tectonic settings. The urgency reflects the hope of reaching the site before cessation of lava and gas emissions, while seismicity rates remain high, and to sample undisturbed tephra and lavas. We are the only international group to be invited to visit and study the eruption site. The field data will complement satellite observations of deformation and gas emission.

The eruption resulted in seven fatalities and has displaced 5000 people, requiring an ongoing humanitarian response. Aviation was disrupted by ash clouds, adding considerably to work of the Toulouse Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, which was also tracking the Puyehue plume above southern Africa. Based on satellite observations, the eruption began shortly before 20:42 UTC on 12 June following intense seismicity. The eruption was detected via infrasound records in Djibouti, and already (emissions continue at the time of writing) ranks among the largest sources of SO2 to the atmosphere since the 1991 Pinatubo eruption (~2 Tg of SO2 released according to retrievals of Ozone Monitoring Instrument data).

The main aims of the project are to arrive at a detailed synthesis of the nature and causes of the eruption, to evaluate the events in the context of understanding restless calderas worldwide, and to compare and contrast activity of Nabro with the fissural basaltic systems that have been the focus of research by the NERC Afar Consortium (

Planned Impact

We will deliver impact in the following areas:

Training of a NERC-funded PhD student at the University of Leeds. This student will work on interpretation of deformation and seismicity under the supervision of Project Partners Wright and Neuberg. This will contribute to the availability of research skills in the UK in respect of Earth observation and geophysics.

Members of our project team have considerable experience in communicating science to the public and school pupils (e.g., via Teachers TV, and the Summer Science exhibition of the Royal Society), and will use any opportunities that arise to publicise results of our research on Nabro. Given the short preparation time of an urgency application, we do not propose any specific activities to engage with the public. However, it is often unanticipated events (such as the 2010 and 2011 eruptions in Iceland) that generate wide interest and public debate concerning understanding of geohazards and solid Earth processes. The PI provided information on the Nabro eruption at the request of Agence France Presse. We have the expertise in the group and willingness to communicate to wider audiences to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

During the first week of the Nabro eruption, the PI provided advice to the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Toulouse. This unit in turn provides expertise to the civil aviation authorities for a wide region of airspace, which includes Africa. It was particularly stretched in June due to the coincident transport of ash from the Puyehue eruption (Chile) above southern Africa. Should there be further generation of ash clouds from Nabro, we would engage directly with members of the Toulouse VAAC to provide any information we might have.

We will support government agencies in Eritrea where appropriate on responding to geohazards. This builds on established contacts between the University of Bristol and the Eritrea Institute of Technology (formalised via an existing memorandum of understanding).

The timescale of the research is relatively short (18 months) and some of the suggested impacts will be realised beyond the project's formal (budgetary) closure.


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Description We have published scientific papers that report analyses and interpretation of a wide range of data and observations - sourced from satellites that observed the eruption, as well as seismological records collected through this project and our preliminary analyses of rock samples collected from the site of the 2011 eruption of Nabro. We have obtained a good picture of the eruption characteristics, in spite of the fact that no scientific observations were made on the ground at the time, and have studied the behaviour of the volcano and its underground structure following the eruption.

The seismological data we collected have supported two PhD student projects - one carried out in Leeds, the other in Bristol.
Exploitation Route The 2011 eruption of Nabro saw the largest explosive release of sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere since the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo. Despite the remote location of the volcano, it has therefore received significant scientific attention. Our data and analyses support the broader understanding of volcanism in this part of the Red Sea and Afar rift system.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Security and Diplomacy

Description This project has been a complex one and arose from an urgency grant application to NERC. This provided support for a rapid response to the 2011 eruption of Nabro volcano, Eritrea, by way of fieldwork and follow up studies. The project has supported two PhD students - one NERC student at University of Leeds, and an Eritrean PhD student now at University of Bristol. It has also supported a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. In this way, the project promoted the training of scientists - in the case of the Eritrean student, we anticipate a lasting collaboration that will develop the capacity of Eritrea for geohazards assessment. The Nabro eruption resulted in a significant release of gases and particles to the middle region of the atmosphere, and disrupted aviation. Understanding this event has implications for volcanic risk management in the future.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Title Nabro Urgency Array 
Description Seismic data "Nabro Urgency Array" held by IRIS A deployment of 8 Guralp 6TD seismometer around Nabro Volcano, Eritrea following the eruption on June 12, 2011 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact PhD thesis of Berhe Goitom (University of Bristol) PhD thesis of Joanna Hamlyn (University of Leeds)