Rapid deployment of a multi-parameter geophysical experiment at Santiaguito volcano, Guatemala, following a marked increase in explosive activity.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences


More than 500 million people live close to active volcanoes. Evidence suggests that, throughout history, societies have been affected and destroyed by catastrophic eruptions. In the 1900s alone almost 100000 people were killed by volcanic explosions and their associated hazards. Explosive eruptions inject enormous columns of ash and debris into the atmosphere and discharge fast avalanches of hot gas and rocks on the slopes of volcanic edifices. Lava dome eruptions represent a style of volcanism of distinctive interest because of their potentially catastrophic effects. The hazards from this type of eruptions are well-known, due to the unpredictable transitions from slow effusion of viscous lava to violent explosive activity, and to the propensity of volcanic domes to suddenly collapse spawning devastating pyroclastic flows. Over the past few decades shifts in eruptive style were reported at several lava dome volcanoes worldwide. The underlying processes driving these transitions, however, remain poorly understood, and geophysical measurements documenting them are also very rare. The Santiaguito lava dome complex in Guatemala has been continuously erupting since 1922 and it has switched several times between effusive and explosive eruption regimes, even displaying the two types of activity simultaneously. At the time of this writing Santiaguito is undergoing a major transition from effusive to explosive behaviour marked by some the largest eruptive events ever recorded at this lava dome complex. The new activity started with a large explosion on 11 April, 2016, which produced an ash column that rose to a height in excess of 4.5 km above the vent and was clearly visible in satellite images. Preliminary estimates by local scientists suggest that this explosion was two orders of magnitude more energetic than anything recorded at Santiaguito over the past 5-6 years. The new activity offers a rare opportunity to document and investigate the geophysical fingerprint of a sudden switch in eruptive style at a lava dome volcano, and to decipher its underlying mechanisms. A geophysical deployment, including seismic, deformation and acoustic measurements is the ideal framework to seize an opportunity that is not frequently available. The proposed experiment will help addressing key scientific questions on activity at lava dome volcanoes, with impact on hazard assessment and risk mitigation in this and other eruption prone areas. The pool of target beneficiaries is broad and includes scientists within academia, civil defense authorities, policy makers and communities living nearby active volcanoes.

Planned Impact

The proposed work will be beneficial to researchers within academia as well as local scientists in Guatemala, hazard managers, policy makers, and other third party stakeholders.

The volcanological community will gain from this project as they will have ready access to a unique, multi-parameter, dataset that documents the transition between effusive and explosive eruption regimes at one of the most active lava dome volcanoes worldwide, with unprecedented resolution. We anticipate that this dataset will represent a benchmark for other eruptions worldwide. Furthermore, the results of this study will assist our project partner INSIVUMEH in Guatemala to fulfill their civil protection duties. Our project will deliver an improved understanding of the source mechanisms of geophysical signals, and thus improve our ability to characterize eruptions and effusive-to-explosive transitions in eruptive style. In summary, this study will contribute to answer the critical question: "What will happen next?"

This multidisciplinary investigation will provide a better description of volcanic processes necessary to reach out to the general public, especially communities living in those areas directly affected by lava dome eruptions. Public engagement will be sought, as allowed by the relatively short duration of an urgency grant, by presenting the outcomes of our project in relevant terms. We will do our best to assist INSIVUMEH compiling information sheets (in Spanish) in order to disseminate the findings of our research to communities around Santiaguito. During our visits to Guatemala we will offer, jointly with our local partners from INSIVUMEH, public seminars in the coffee plantations on the volcano flanks, which are affected daily by gas-and-ash explosions and pyroclastic flows activity from Santiaguito, and who are under constant threat from the escalation in activity.


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Lamb Oliver (2017) Long-term variations in explosion dynamics at Santiaguito volcano in EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts

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Lapins S (2020) An examination of the continuous wavelet transform for volcano-seismic spectral analysis in Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research

Description We were able to measure the time scale of transition from slow effusive volcanic activity - i.e. outpouring of lava from a vent - to highly explosive events, which causes atmospheric injection of "ash" and propagation of pyroclastic density currents in the area around the volcanic edifice. We link this sudden changes to physical processes in the deep magmatic system. The dataset collected is one of the few complete geophysical and geological records of such a "switch" in a volcanic system.
Exploitation Route Our findings represent a starting point to investigate the transition between effusive and explosive behavior at lava dome worldwide. The data collected and our preliminary results published will form the basis for the implementation of more sophisticated modeling frameworks and of real-time volcano monitoring systems.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Energy,Environment,Other

Description INSIVUMEH, the National Geological Survey of Guatemala, has greatly benefited from access to the data collected through this project. These data have helped scientists at INSIVUMEH with the assessment of volcanic activity and related hazard at Santiaguito volcano. They were able to provide informed advice to government and local authorities on the actions to be taken during volcanic crises in order to mitigate risks for population and infrastructure.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description INSIVUMEH
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Data collected and the analysis provided by the members of the research team were used by the Guatemalan national geological survey to issue alerts during episodes of volcanic unrest. Many people work and live in areas affected by the volcanic activity the team investigates.
Description Scientific advice during eruptive activity in Guatemala, 2018
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Implementation of new procedures response to volcanic eruptions.
Description Methods to assess volume and ash volume fraction using inversion of acoustic waveforms and thermal infrared imagery. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Ability of assessing volume, mass eruption rates and ash/gas composition of volcanic plumes. could potentially be implemented in real-time in the future. 
Description Continuous seismic and acoustic infrasound data during volcanic unrest in 2017-2019. Campaign thermal IR measurements. Digital topography from UVA flights. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact N/A 
Description INSIVUMEH 
Organisation National Institute for Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology of Guatemala
Country Guatemala 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Training of local staff in volcano monitoring methods and practices. Access to equipment and geophysical data collected between 2016 and present. One-year continuous, multi-parameter, monitoring of the Santiaguito lava dome complex performed for the first time since the start of the current eruption in 1922.
Collaborator Contribution Help with logistic sand access to sites to install equipment.
Impact Publications Multi-parameter geophysical dataset
Start Year 2017