Deadliest Eruption of 2018 Strikes Guatemala

By Erik Klemetti | June 3, 2018 8:04 pm

The world’s attention has been on Hawaii, but an explosive eruption today in Guatemala has now become the deadliest of the year. UPDATE 4:45 PM ET June 4: At least 69 people have been killed and hundreds injured in an eruption that generated multiple pyroclastic flows and heavy ash fall across the area near Fuego, the Central American country’s most active volcano. Three hundred UPDATE: Over 3,000 people living near Fuego have been evacuated as a precaution for more pyroclastic flows. Emergency responders are trying to reach people injured by the eruption, UPDATE: but have been hampered by the weather and conditions.

What is a pyroclastic flow? It is a jumble of ash, chunks of volcanic rock, hot gases and air that move down the sides of a volcano at hundreds of kilometers per hour. They are also hot at over 500ºC, so they pretty much wipe out everything — building, trees, bridges, people — in their path. UPDATE: This eruption is NOT lava, as many of the current news articles are saying. There may be chunks of fresh lava in the flow, but this is a hot debris avalanche, not flowing molten rock.

There is some startling video taken of one of today’s pyroclastic flows as they reached a bridge – however, before you watch this, remember if you ever find yourself in a situation like this, DO NOT stick around to film it. Run/drive/ride away as fast as possible.

Here is another showing a large flow (being filmed by someone speeding away):

The pyroclastic flows reached golf courses near Fuego, burying parts of the resort in hot ash and debris:

Rain that is falling today is also remobilizing this new volcanic tephra to form lahars (volcanic mudflows) in some of the rivers leading away from Fuego, UPDATE: which destroyed at least one bridge.

Considering this video, it is a little ironic that today was the 27th anniversary of the death’s of Maurice and Katia Krafft and Harry Glicken at Unzen in Japan. The Kraffts were famed volcanic documentarians while Harry Glicken was a USGS volcanologist. A pyroclastic flow like what happened today at Fuego killed them as they tried to view it from a restricted zone.

Ash from the eruption fell as far as Guatemala City, 70 kilometers away. You can see how dangerous it might be to be driving when ash is falling 25 kilometers from the volcano in this Twitter pic:

UPDATE 11:20 AM ET June 4: Here is some video taken by a hiker near the eruption – watch to the end to see/hear chunks of volcanic debris landing around him.

The plume from the eruption was seen clearly on a GOES satellite image, with the dark grey ash cloud punching through the white cloud deck. The VAAC advisory for the eruption says that the ash may have reached as high as 9-15 kilometers (30,000-50,000 feet), although the INSIVMEH report says the explosions reached 6 km (~20,000 feet). UPDATE: The NASA Earth Observatory released an image taken by Suomi NPP showing the Fuego plume as well.

Let’s also clear up a few things that may come up: (1) there is no connection between this eruption and the one going on at Kīlauea right now; (2) it is not odd to have multiple volcanoes erupting at the same time across the globe; (3) the eruptions at Fuego and Kīlauea are very different in their style — this means that people in Hawaii should not expect anything like this at Kīlauea.

Eruptions at Fuego can produce a wide range of products: lava flows, ash fall, mudflows, pyroclastic flows. This is typical for a volcano like Fuego, a stratovolcano in a subduction zone, where one plate is sliding under another. This is unlike Kīlauea, a shield volcano at a hotspot, where lava flows are the dominant product.

Hopefully, the death toll is stay low for this eruption of Fuego, but it is a reminder of how dangerous volcanic eruptions can be, especially when they erupt explosively.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
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Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.
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