Tsunami, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanic Eruptions and other Natural and Man-Made Hazards and Disasters - by Dr. George Pararas Carayannis

Tsunami, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanic Eruptions, Climate Change and other Natural and Man-Made Hazards and Disasters - Disaster Archaeology, Other Miscellaneous Writings


Risk Assessment of Tsunamis from Volcanic Sources - Forecasting and Preparedness for the Caribbean Region

George Pararas-Carayannis

Excerpts from presentation at the 2004 National Science Foundation Tsunami Workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico , and from recent paper published in the Journal of Tsunami Hazards, Volume 22, Number 2. 2004 http://www.STHJOURNAL.ORG


Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, volcanic island flank failures and underwater slides have generated numerous destructive tsunamis in the Caribbean region. Convergent, compressional and collisional tectonic activity caused primarily from the eastward movement of the Caribbean Plate in relation to the North American and South American Plates, is responsible for zones of subduction in the region, the formation of island arcs and the evolution of particular volcanic centers on the overlying plate. The inter-plate tectonic interaction and deformation along these marginal boundaries result in moderate seismic and volcanic events that can generate tsunamis by a number of different mechanisms.

The active geo-dynamic processes have created the Lesser Antilles, an arc of small islands with volcanoes characterized by both effusive and explosive activity. Eruption mechanisms of these Caribbean volcanoes are complex and often anomalous. Collapses of lava domes often precede major eruptions, which may vary in intensity from Strombolian to Plinian. Locally catastrophic, short-period tsunami-like waves can be generated directly by lateral, direct or channelized volcanic blast episodes, or in combination with collateral air pressure perturbations, nuess ardentes, pyroclastic flows, lahars, or cascading debris avalanches. Submarine volcanic caldera collapses can also generate local destructive tsunami waves.

Volcanoes of the Eastern Caribbean Island Arc (modified web graphic of West Indies University)

Volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean Region have unstable flanks. Destructive local tsunamis may be generated from aerial and submarine volcanic edifice mass edifice flank failures, which may be triggered by volcanic episodes, lava dome collapses, or simply by gravitational instabilities. The present report evaluates volcanic mechanisms, resulting flank failure processes and their potential for tsunami generation. More specifically, the report evaluates recent volcanic eruption mechanisms of the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat, of Mt. Pelée on Martinique, of Soufriere on St. Vincent and of the Kick'em Jenny underwater volcano near Grenada and provides an overall risk assessment of tsunami generation from volcanic sources in the Caribbean region.

Assessment of Future Risks of Tsunamis from Volcanic Sources in the Caribbean Region - Forecasting and Preparedness

The historic record indicates that Caribbean volcanoes pose a serious threat for several islands in the region (Robertson1992, 1995). The1902 eruptions of Mt Pelée on Martinique and of La Soufrière on St Vincent, and the more recent eruptions of Soufriere Hills on Montserrat, and of Kick'em Jenny in Grenada increased awareness that tsunamis generated from volcanic sources represent an additional hazard that needs to be addressed individually for each of the region's active volcanoes. Fortunately - and in contrast to the unpredictability of tsunamis of seismic origin - tsunamis generated form volcanic sources can be forecasted for the Caribbean region and appropriate measures can be taken. Preparedness for the tsunami hazard should include the monitoring of precursory eruptive processes as ongoing presently (Sigurdsson 1981; Shepherd and Aspinall 1982; Shepherd 1989) but, additionally, studies of geomorphologies and flank instabilities of each individual volcano and the mapping of risk areas that can contribute to massive volcanic edifice failures ­ with or without a volcanic triggering event ­ and thus in the generation of destructive tsunami waves.

The 1976 eruption of La Soufrière on St Vincent island (Photograph by Richard Fiske)

Already, as a result of greater awareness and concerns about the threat of volcanic hazards in the Caribbean region, several scientific organizations have already established monitoring stations on several islands. For example, following the devastating 1902 eruption of La Soufrière volcano on St. Vincent Island, a surveillance program was initiated. In 1952, a Seismic Research Unit was established on the island and a sustained program of volcano monitoring was undertaken (Fiske and Shepherd. 1990). Similarly, following the 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat, a monitoring program was established. Additionally, the Universities of Puerto Rico and of the West Indies have undertaken extensive monitoring functions and programs. Present volcano monitoring operations include routine measurements of geological, geophysical and geochemical parameters and assessments of precursory-to-an-eruption phenomena. With some small additional effort, these existing volcano monitoring programs in the Caribbean region can easily assess future risks for the collateral tsunami hazard, develop micro-zonation maps of potential tsunami hazard sites along the coast and help establish programs of tsunami preparedness for the public. The following sections summarize briefly the importance of monitoring some of the precursory-to-an-eruption phenomena as they relate to potential tsunami generation.

Micro-earthquake Activity: Routine monitoring of a volcano's micro-earthquake activity helps forecast eruptions (Hirn et al1987). For example, before a major eruption occurs on Soufriere Hills on the island of Montserrat, the increasing pressure within the volcano generates a flurry of micro-earthquakes, which are indicative of magma movement. When this activity peaks and the focus of micro earthquakes becomes shallower, it becomes evident that the pressure within the volcano has reached a critical phase and that a fairly imminent eruption can be expected. Such monitoring is presently in effect for several islands with active volcanoes.

Monitoring Lava Dome Formation and Rate of Growth: Measuring the swelling of the volcano with tilt meters and other geodetic and photogrammetric means may also indicate if there is intrusion by a lava dome, the dome's rate of growth, and its potential for collapse. Mature lava domes, which grow slowly, are usually non-explosive. Similarly non-explosive are post eruption lava domes, such as the felsic lava dome known as the Tower of Pelée - extruded in the waning stages of the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée on Martinique.

Example of a lava dome development at Mount St. Helens prior to the explosive 1983 eruption (USGS graphic)

However, younger, fast growing, pre-eruption extruded domes that contain lava which has not been completely degassed, may explode or collapse. The eruption and explosion of Mt. St. Helens in the State of Washington were preceded by the rapid development of a lava dome over a three-year period from 1980 to 1983. Also, a lava dome formed rapidly on the Soufriere Hills volcano's crater on Montserrat Island over a two-month period prior to the major eruption of 26 December 1997. The dome formation served as a natural warning for the residents of Plymouth to evacuate, thus there was no losses of life. Stations on several Caribbean islands with active volcanoes, routinely monitor lava dome formation and rates of growth.

Evaluation of Potential Lava Dome Collapses: The periodic explosion or gravitational collapses of the viscous masses of lava domes can sometimes generate deadly pyroclastic flows that can reach the sea and generate tsunami waves. Lava dome collapses were associated with the 1902 eruption and nuée ardente of Mt. Pelée on Martinique, the 1902 eruption of Soufriere on St. Vincent Island and the 1997, 1999 and 2003 eruptions, pyroclastic flows and debris avalanches of Soufriere Hills on Monteserrat Island ­ the latter generating significant tsunami waves along the southwestern coast of the island.

In view of the above, it is important to monitor changes of lava domes and their potential for collapses. Furthermore, since lava dome collapses, particularly near a volcanic summit may be followed by violent eruptions, pyroclastic flows and debris avalanches, the expected path of destruction and potential flank failure sites can be determined by careful evaluation of the local topography and geomorphology. Based on such assessments, coastal areas subject to the tsunami hazard could be identified, microzonation maps can be drawn and appropriate warning signs be posted for the protection of the public.


Historical tsunami events from volcanic sources in the Caribbean Region have been under-reported as the immensity of destruction from volcanic events has overshadowed them. Small scale flank failures are quite common for most of the active volcanoes in the Caribbean. Such volcanic sources have the potential of generating destructive local waves in confined bodies of water and in the near field environment of an open coast. Local tsunamis can also be generated by gravity-induced flank failures, even in the absence of eruptive triggering events. Heavy rains and earth tides appear to play a significant role in small scale flank failures of unstable volcanic slopes.

Pyroclastic flow from the 2003 eruption of Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat, reaching the sea. ("Copyright Montserrat Volcano Observatory/Government of Montserrat and British Geological Survey; photo used by permission of the Director, MVO")

Tsunami or tsunami-like waves can be generated by a variety of volcanic mechanisms, pyroclastic flows, debris avalanches, and volcanic edifice mass failures and by aerial or submarine landslides. Impulsively generated waves from such complex source mechanisms behave non-linearly and change significantly away from the source, with varying near and far field effects and terminal run up heights. However the wave periods are short and range from 1-4 minutes at most. The heights of these waves attenuate rapidly with distance because of relatively smaller source dimensions and shorter wave periods and do not pose a significant danger at great distances from the source. Caribbean volcanoes and their associated flank failures can be forecasted with careful monitoring and programs of preparedness need to be established.

At the present time. the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat poses the greater threat of local tsunami generation in the Eastern Caribbean Region. Its eruptive activity in the last decade, the rapid rates of lava dome formations and growth and the associated collapses and eruptive style, indicate ongoing active volcanic processes that will continue for many years. Tsunamis can be expected in the near future from both pyroclastic flows reaching the sea and by flank collapses.

The historic record supports that Mt. Pelée on the island of Martinique will continue to pose a threat for a repeat of a Vulcanian-Plinian episode in the future. When this will happen is not known. However, given the sophistication of present monitoring programs, any future activity of the volcano will be properly forecasted and cautionary measures will be taken. Local tsunamis may be expected around the island by flank failures of unstable slopes, even in the absence of a triggering volcanic event.

Also, The historic record supports that the stratovolcano "La Soufrière" on the island of St. Vincent poses a very significant threat for renewed activity in the future. Given the fact that there is a lake at the summit, there is also a potential danger that even an eruption of moderate activity may cause a breach on the crater's rim and trigger a dangerous lahar which may be destructive and may even generate a local tsunami if it reaches the sea. Also the instability of La Soufrière flanks pose a threat of failures and of local tsunami generation ­ even in the absence of a volcanic eruption. Heavy rains, gravitational forces and earth tides may be significant triggering factors.

Kick them Jenny volcano will continue to rise towards the surface and eventually will form an island volcano. It is possible that its present rate of growth may be slowed down by cone collapses and subsidence. The dimensions of the volcano and the style of expected eruptions and intensities limit the size of tsunamis that can be generated from future events. A large violent eruption of the Kick'em Jenny volcano at the present depth of the summit, can be expected to generate waves with a probable maximum runup of about 3 meters in Northern Crenada and the Grenadines, and as much as 1-2 meters along the west coast of the Barbados, Trinidad, and St. Vincent. The wave heights along the nearest coastline of northern Bonaire and Venezuela may be up to 1 meter at the most. When the volcano breaks through the surface of the sea, the probable maximum runup of a tsunami from a major eruption could be as much as 4 meters on Northern Grenada and as much as 2 meters along the west coast of the Barbados, Trinidad, and St. Vincent.


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See also

PART 2 - Recent Tsunamis of Volcanic Origin in the Islands of the Lesser Antilles - Volcanic Mechanisms of Tsunami Generation

PART 3 - Tsunami Generation from Volcanic Sources

PART 5 - Factors Contributing to Volcanic Explosivity, Structural Flank Instabilities, Mass Edifice Failures, Debris Avanlanches and Tsunami Generation in the Caribbean Region

PART 6 - Volcanically-Induced Tsunami Generation in the Lesser Antilles Islands (Montserrat, Martinique, St. Vincent and Grenada)


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