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.

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  • Chris DeVries

    Wow. Fuego is an unpredictable beast to be sure. Makes me feel a little idiotic that I actually climbed almost to the top of Fuego back in ’09. I watched the volcano for 2 straight days before going up, and waited on the shoulder that goes down Fuego towards Acatenango until a particularly large blast occurred, before rushing up the cone to within 100 vertical metres of the top (not sure exactly how close I got, but it was at least that – I was almost on top of the lowest fumaroles). I had returned to Acatenango’s slopes before Fuego erupted the next time, so it seemed like I did a stupid thing as safely as it could be done back then, but I guess it was still a stupid thing! I knew then though that it was capable of this – it has frequently broken pattern and put together massive individual eruptions – but normally these come after weeks or months of erratic behavior, so I can say I understood the risk and made an informed decision.

    Fuego remains one of my favorite volcanoes worldwide. The double-volcano phenomenon in Guatemala is incredibly beautiful and interesting. Also, I am really fascinated by volcanoes that erupt basalt, often in lava flows, but when conditions are right can create some of the most deadly eruptions there are. Krakatoa is one of these, and Fuego is another. Etna is also known to produce ash plumes, though these can be steam driven due to melting ice and snow near the summit. I guess it all depends on the pressure/gas variable – basalt, when cool and silicic enough (and Fuego’s specimens tend to be of the silica-rich variety – for basalt anyway – like many continental subduction zone volcanoes that produce basalt) can, if enough gas builds up, become fragmented in eruptions leading to ash, column collapse, and incredible pyroclastic flows like we saw yesterday. It’s truly tragic so many died (25 at last count, with 100s injured) but death is a side effect of a truly impressive feat of natural power.

    Anyway, I believe this is the first deadly eruption in Guatemala since Pacaya acted up back in 2010 and killed 3 people. 2 fatal incidents in a decade is a great record for a country as replete with volcanoes as Guatemala is (it’s comparable with Japan’s recent record, for example). The geologists on staff at INSIVUMEH generally do a great job of preventing fatalities by ordering evacuations before things get too crazy (in 2012 and 2015 for example, they saved plenty of lives from Fuego’s wrath by evacuating people), so this is an anomaly, at least in modern Guatemala. Still, there are a LOT of people (almost 1,500 within 5 km of the summit and over 50,000 within 10 km) living near Volcán de Fuego for various reasons, most notably the very fertile soil – such is life with volcanoes. With such high numbers of people in striking distance of a volcano as unpredictable as Fuego, I am actually surprised the death toll was that low. In any case, those people filming the pyroclastic flow as it descended the river valley are lucky it wasn’t bigger – such hazards are known to overspill the banks of valleys if they are large enough, and this has resulted in fatalities in the past (I’m thinking of the Soufrière Hills volcano here as a great example, which killed 19 people in 1997 when a pyroclastic flow expanded over the lip of a valley and into some agricultural fields).

  • Chris DeVries

    Wow. Fuego is an unpredictable beast to be sure. Makes me feel a
    little idiotic that I actually climbed nearly to the top of Fuego back in 2009. I watched the volcano for over a day before going up, and waited on the shoulder that goes down Fuego towards Acatenango until a particularly large blast occurred, before rushing up the cone to within 100 vertical metres of the top (not sure exactly how close I got, but it was at least that – I was almost on top of the lowest fumaroles). I had already retreated to Acatenango’s slopes before Fuego erupted the next time, so it seemed like I did a stupid thing as safely as it could be done back then, but I guess it was still a stupid thing! I knew then though that it was capable of this – it has frequently broken pattern and put together massive individual eruptions – but normally these come after weeks or months of erratic behavior, so I can say I understood the risk and made an informed decision that wasn’t THAT dangerous (especially as the area I climbed to was unaffected by all of the eruptions that took place before, during and after my stay there…maybe only a few times a month there would be large tephra falling in the space where I climbed to).

    Fuego remains one of my favorite volcanoes worldwide for numerous reasons. The double-volcano phenomenon in Guatemala is incredibly beautiful and interesting. Also, I am really fascinated by volcanoes that erupt basalt, often in lava flows, but when conditions are right can still create some of the most deadly eruptions there are. Krakatoa is one of these, and Fuego is another (and even Etna is also known to produce ash plumes, though these can be steam driven due to melting ice and snow near the summit). It all depends on the pressure/gas variable – basalt, when cool and silicic enough (and Fuego’s specimens tend to be of the silica-rich variety – for basalt anyway – like many continental subduction zone volcanoes that produce basalt) can, if enough gas builds up, become fragmented in eruptions, leading to ash clouds, column collapse, and incredible pyroclastic flows like we saw yesterday. It’s tragic so many died but death is a side effect of a truly impressive feat of natural power.

    Anyway, I believe this is the first deadly eruption in Guatemala since Pacaya acted up back in 2010 and killed 3 people, and its deadliest since the Santa Maria catastrophe, over 100 years ago (making Fuego an early leader in the race for 2018’s Pliny Award!). Still, in recent history, Guatemala has done a great job at preventing fatalities during eruptions, at least as good a job as Japan (which is also a country replete with volcanoes, some of which are very active, but which has seen a significant number of fatalities due to an unexpected eruption once in the past decade). In past incidents, the geologists on staff at INSIVUMEH have usually managed to order evacuations before things got too crazy (in 2012 and 2015 for example, they saved plenty of lives from Fuego’s wrath by evacuating people), so this is an anomaly, at least in modern Guatemala. It is important to understand that there are a LOT of people (almost 1,500 within 5 km of the summit and over 50,000 within 10 km, numbers from the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program) living VERY near to Fuego for various reasons, most notably the fertile soil (as is common in volcanic terrain). With such high numbers of people in striking distance of a volcano as unpredictable as Fuego, I am actually surprised the death toll was that low. In any case, those people filming the pyroclastic flow as it descended the river valley are quite lucky it wasn’t bigger – these flows are known to overspill the banks of valleys if they are large enough, and this has resulted in fatalities in the past (I’m thinking of the Soufrière Hills volcano here as a great example, which killed 19 people in 1997 when a pyroclastic flow expanded over the lip of a valley and into some agricultural fields).

    *This is an edited re-post; it was flagged by Disqus for some reason when I posted it the first time. I’ve had this happen before, and never know why, but I do not expect it to be released from their blog comment jail any time soon (based on that past experience).*

    • http://vimeo.com/20138793 angelo78

      There are rumours that an entire village of 500 people was destroyed and everyone killed.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    The safety, efficiency, economy, and cleanliness of geothermal energy will render Guatemala rich beyond its dreams and desires. All that lacks is the emergency arrival of shock brigades of exemplary geo-ethicists to further the daily struggle. A great scientific social experiment has awakened. Bernie Sanders can save them.

  • Mike Don

    Umm, yes, Fuego and Kilauea are totally different beasts BUT (as we saw a week or two back) the Halemaumau pit can let go with quite respectable phreatic explosions in certain circumstances Not on the Fuego level, but nevertheless can be rather dangerous locally

  • http://vimeo.com/20138793 angelo78

    The distance between Guatemala city and Fuego is not 70 kilometers (44 miles), it is 27 miles (44 kilometers).

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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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