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



George Pararas-Carayannis

Excerpts from presentation at the 2004 National Science Foundation Tsunami Workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico , and from other papers published in the Journal of Tsunami Hazards, http://www.STHJOURNAL.ORG other publications and review of the literature.


Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, volcanic island flank failures and sub aerial and underwater landslides have generated numerous destructive tsunamis in the world's oceans and seas. Convergent, compressional and collisional tectonic activity is responsible for zones of subduction, the formation of island arcs and the evolution of particular volcanic centers on the overlying plates. Inter-plate tectonic interaction and deformation along marginal tectonic boundaries results in seismic and volcanic events that can generate tsunamis by a number of different mechanisms.

Active geo-dynamic processes in mid-ocean or along contintental boundaries create arcs of islands with volcanoes characterized by both effusive and explosive activity. The eruption mechanisms are complex and often anomalous. For example, lava dome collapses often precede major eruptions of volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean Region and these eruptions may vary in intensity from Strombolian to Plinian. Their style of eruptive activity contributes to the development of unstable flanks. Destructive local tsunamis may be generated from both aerial and submarine volcanic edifice mass edifice flank failures, which may be triggered by volcanic episodes, lava dome collapses, or simply by gravitational instabilities. Locally catastrophic, short-period tsunami-like waves can also 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.

Satellite Photo of the Santorin volcano in the Aegean Sea showing the large submarine caldera created by the 1490 BC eruption and collapse. The island in the middle - Nea Kameni - was formed by subsequent eruptive activity of the volcano.

Oceanic, basalt shield volcanoes have different styles of eruption, thus their mechanisms of flank failures and of tsunami generation differ from those of volcanoes along continental boundaries. However all types of volcanoes can undergo large scale flank failures which can generate destructive tsunamis.

Based on what appear to be debris avalanches or toes of large scale landslides on the ocean floor, it has been postulated that "mega-tsunamis" were generated in the distant geologic past by massive volcanic flank failures in the Canary, Cape Verde and Hawaiian islands, as well as elsewhere in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

Pararas-Carayannis (1992, 2002, 2003) evaluated mega-tsunami generation from prehistoric and postulated massive landslides and flank failures of oceanic basalt shield stratovolcanoes such as Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Cumbre Vieja, Cumbre Nueva, Taburiente and Piton De La Fournaise, and from the explosions/collapses of continental stratovolcanoes linked to catastrophic phreatomagmatic episodes of Plinian and Ultra-Plinian intensities, such as those that occurred at Krakatau and Santorin. Some of these volcanic sources of tsunami generation were realistically modeled in estimating the near and far field wave characteristics (Mader, 2001; Le Friant, 2001; Gisler 2004).

Volcani Flank failure of the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Monteserrat, in the Eastern Caribbean.

The present report evaluates volcanic mechanisms, resulting flank failure processes and their potential for tsunami generation.

The southern coastal flank of the volcano of Santorin which appears to have collapsed, at the time of the explosive eruption of Santorin in the 15th century BC


Slope instabilities, slope failures and gravitational flank collapses of stratovolcanoes that can generate destructive tsunami or tsunami-like waves can be caused by different mechanisms, individually or in combination. The triggering mechanisms and extent of flank failures may be significantly different for volcanoes around the world, depending on the geochemistry of lava and ejecta and the eruptive styles and intensities. Whether a stratovolcano has effusive or explosive eruptive activity will determine the relative stability of its slopes. Thus, volcanoes with lavas of high andecitic composition and explosive type of eruptive activity tend to have steeper and more unstable flanks that can often massively fail. However, even shield stratovolcanoes - characterized by mainly effusive activity - can have significant flank failures. The following is a brief review of different mechanisms that can result in volcanic flank failures and the generation of tsunami or tsunami like waves.

Volcanic flank failures may result from isostatic load adjustments, extensive erosion, gaseous pressures, violent phreatomagmatic eruptions, magmastatic pressures, gravitational collapses of magmatic chambers, dike and cryptodome intrusions, as well as from buildup of hydrothermal and supra hydrostatic pore fluid pressures.

Large scale gradual flank failure of the southern flank of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii and generating source region of the August 29, 1975 tsunami.

Tsunami Generation Mechanisms of Shield Volcanoes ­ Because oceanic, basalt shield volcanoes have different styles of eruption, their mechanisms of flank failures and of tsunami generation differ somewhat from those of volcanoes along continental boundaries. Most of the basaltic stratovolcanoes have Hawaiian styles of eruptions, which usually involve less explosivity and passive lava flows because of lower silica, gas content and ejecta viscosity. Occasional sudden gas releases may produce explosive lava fountains and unstable pyroclastic deposits. Small scale hydromagmatic explosions can also occur near the coast. Examples would be those that formed the Diamond Head and Coco Head craters on the island of Oahu, in Hawaii. However, most of the eruptions of shield volcanoes are usually confined near summit calderas or along flank craters and vents. Resulting slides from unconsolidated pyroclastics usually involve relatively small volumes of material, which rarely reach the sea to generate waves of any consequence. However, destructive tsunamis can be generated from massive volcanic edifice failures of larger blocks which may be triggered by large scale magmatic chamber collapses, erosion, gaseous pressure, phreatomagmatic and forced dike injection, or by isostatic and gravity induced kinematic changes (Pararas-Carayannis 2002). Any of these processes can trigger large volcanic mass failures of shield volcanoes, alone or in combination with other mechanisms.

Magmatic chamber collapse mechanism

Gravitational collapse of unsupported magmatic chambers can exert shear forces primarily in the direction parallel to the failure, rather at the more effective right angle. However massive caldera collapses are usually associated with violent Strombolian, Surtsean, Plinian and Ultra-Plinian volcanic eruptions, rather than with eruptions of shield volcanoes.

(Right) Satellite photo of the volcano of Piton De La Fournaise on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, which shows concentric caldera collapses and large scale flank failure.

(Left) Satellite photo of the volcano of Nissyros and its collaped caldera, at the eastern end of the Aegean Sea volcanic arc - which includes the volcanoes of Methana, Milos and Santorin. In recent years a fracture has developed on the crater floor.

The triggering mechanism of the last violent paroxysmal eruptive phase of a colossal or super-collosal volcanic eruption such as those of Krakatau and Santorin, may be hydromagmatic or the result of extreme gaseous pressures building below high viscosity magmatic residues. Usually, caldera collapses occur by the engulfment of the unsupported upper cone into the drained magmatic chambers of a volcano after the final paroxysmal phase.


However, in the case of the Krakatau or Santorin, the estimated volumes of ejected pumice and other pyroclastic debris were considerably less than the volumes of the caldera depressions (Pararas-Carayannis, 2002). The volume discrepancies suggest a possible mechanism for the explosive removal of the upper volcanic cone, rather than its total engulfment, or perhaps a combination of the two processes. Also, the volume discrepancy may be related to the size of empty magmatic chambers, to lateral material movement, and to adjacent underwater slope failures. Caldera collapse is not necessarily a sudden and total process. Often, the collapse process occurs in phases. This may result in the formation of ring dikes indicating post-collapse magmatic intrusion along fractures formed by the subsidence of the roof of the magma chamber.


Underwater Morphology of the Kick'em Jenny Volcano near the island of Grenada

Regardless of the form or severity of volcanic explosive activity, collapse processes on any volcano may create large depressions that resemble Krakatoan calderas, or double pit craters such as those observed at the summit of shield volcanoes like Kilauea in Hawaii, or Taburiente on LaPalma. Erosional processes and slides, as with the extinct Taburiente or Koolau volcanoes, can contribute significantly to the post-eruption enlargement of calderas.


Underwater Morphology of the Loihi Seamount south of the Island of Hawaii














Isostatic mechanism.

Although the main force responsible for any slope failure is always gravity, an event of considerable force is needed to trigger the movement of a large mass of a volcanic flank. Slope failure due to gravity alone, is a function of the angle of repose at which the volcanic materials were deposited as the volcanoes built up. On the flat ocean floor surface, the force of gravity acts downward, so nothing moves. On a young volcanic island - still in its shield building phase - extruded lava flows find their own natural angles of repose, above and below the water.

Excluding the influence of other forces, underwater slopes of young oceanic volcanoes are relatively stable, consisting mainly of pillow lavas. As a stratovolcanic island builds up and loads the earth's crust, isostatic adjustments cause flank subsidence, buckling of the ocean floor, and offshore deeps and arches. For example, the morphology and structural evolutionary development of the Hilina Slump, off Kilauea's southern coast, suggest an active isostatic adjustment process. The Hawaiian Trough and the Hawaiian Arch are examples of isostatically-caused buckling of the ocean floor around the island of Hawaii. Although accountable for the continuous mobility of the volcanic flank, as observed along the southern coast of Hawaii, this mechanism is too slow to trigger sudden collapses.

Erosional mechanism

As a volcanic island gets older, extensive erosion takes place. The deposited materials consist primarily of unconsolidated sediments, gravels, rocks, pyroclastics, or lavas flows reaching the sea from subsequent flank or summit eruptions. Where a large accumulation of loose material occurs, the flank becomes less stable. Gravity alone, or the vertical and horizontal accelerations of an earthquake, can trigger landslides.

La Palma Island Relief - Extensive Erosion and Collapse of the Taburiente Caldera

For example, erosion during the Miocene period played a key role in the evolution of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, the oldest of the easternmost Canary Islands. Giant landslides reduced them considerably in height (Stillman, 1999). Even on La Palma, El Hierro and Tenerife, the younger western Canary islands, which are still in their shield stage, substantial amount of erosion has occurred.

On La Palma, hundreds of meters of sedimentary material - primarily gravel - has accumulated on the western slope of the island primarily due to extensive erosion of the Taburiente caldera. The gravel is mixed with basaltic lave flows, a trend which appears to continue into the ocean. A large surface landslide could be triggered by a large earthquake. However the existing volcanic dikes would render some stability.

Overall the erosion mechanism can be effective in triggering landslides, particularly on the older islands, but not on flanks of volcanoes, still in their shield building stage. Therefore, it is very unlikely that a massive surface landslide of great dimensions can occur by this mechanism on either La Palma or Hawaii. In Hawaii, for example, the major earthquake of 1868 only triggered a surface landslide on Mauna Loa that was only three miles long and thirty feet thick.



Gaseous pressure mechanism.

To overcome the shear strength of a large volume of material, even on a relatively unstable volcanic flank, requires a very large triggering event and a tremendous lateral shear stress. Gaseous pressures do not built up on shield type of volcanoes as they do prior to the paroxysmal Plinian and Ultra-Plinian eruptions of volcanoes of the Krakatoan variety. For example, on oceanic volcanoes such as Cumbre Vieja and Kilauea, the eruptions are of non-explosive types and involve primarily extrusions of pahoehoe and aa lavas, with only small amounts of pyroclastics, usually from secondary vents. Gaseous pressures in their magmatic chambers of shield volcanoew do not get high.

In the case of the island of La Palma - for which a large flank failure has been postulated - a major volcanic eruption of Cumbre Vieja, either near the summit or along vents of its rift zone, would not build up great gaseous pressures and could not exert sufficient shear stress to trigger failure at the base of the postulated mass - most of which is underwater. Recent eruptive activity on Cumbre Vieja occurs along a concentrated volcanic center aligned primarily with a well-defined North-South trending rift zone in which major dike emplacement has taken place
(Stillman, 1999). Deformation by intruding magma can indeed create a local stress field which may result in predominantly dip-slip motion and form a rupture - as the one resulting from the 1949 eruption. However, such triggering mechanism will affect the upper portion of the volcano and can only result in partial flank failure. Gaseous pressure will not be a significant factor in triggering a massive flank failure. However, for primarily andesitic volcanoes, gaseous magnatic pressures could trigger massive flank failures and the generation of tsunamis

Phreatomagmatic mechanism.

Phreatomagmatic eruption activity due to ground water intrusion - from increased rainfall activity, caused by climatic changes - has been proposed as another possible triggering mechanism for volcanic flank failures and giant landslides (McMurtrya et al. 1999). As the magmatic system comes into contact with the hydrothermal system, the expansion of water - in the form of superheated steam - results in an explosive type of activity that tends to weaken a volcano, perhaps to the point of collapse. This would be particularly true for continental type of volcanoes but not so much on oceanic shield volcanoes. At the latter, phreatomagmatic activity is usually limited to secondary cone eruptions and the emissions of tephra or ephritic lava. Sea or ground water intrusion into shallow magmaric chambers creates the superheated steam which is the primary triggering factor of a violent phreatomagmatic eruptions. Furthermore, on oceanic island volcanoes, this mechanism tends to initiate primarily sub aerial collapses which may be usually limited to the upper flanks or along secondary vents along the rift, which may be nearer to the coast.

Additionally, and regardless of climate changes and wetter periods, relatively young volcanic islands such as Cumbre Vieja and Kilauea - still in the shield building stage - retain little ground water because of greater rock porosity. Most of the rain water runs off and is lost. There is no extensive water lens at the base, as with older and highly eroded volcanic islands. On the younger volcanic islands rainfall water collects in pools, surrounded by impermeable dikes - usually in the upper slopes. Any violent phreatomagmatic activity is usually limited to a few vents near the summit or the upper flanks of the volcano and involves only shallow magmatic chambers.

Forced dike injection mechanism

The forced injection of dikes and the concurrent development of mechanical and thermal pore fluid pressures along the upper flank or at the basal décollement region, combined with associated magmastatic pressures at the dike interface - as proposed by Elsworth & Day (1999) - can indeed contribute to significant destabilization of the flank of an active stratovolcano, such as Cumbre Vieja or Kilauea. Whether a shallow flank or a deeper basal décollement failure will eventually be triggered, will depend on additional complementary destabilizing effects of mechanical magma "piston like push" at the rear of the weakened block, and the buildup of thermal and supra hydrostatic pore pressures - if below the water table. Depending on the geometry and horizontal extent of dike intrusion and its thickness, as well as on the extent of contributing hydrothermal and mechanical factors, such combined forces can indeed become an effective primary triggering mechanism for larger-scale volcanic flank failures and subsequent tsunami generation.

There is evidence that large, prehistoric flank failures were triggered by such mechanisms. Dike and cryptodome intrusion, as well as hydrothermal alteration in the crater area, probably weakened and further triggered the flank collapse of the Roque Nublo stratovolcano on Gran Canaria Island during the Pliocene period
(Mehl & Schmincke, 1999). The massive, prehistoric, collapse of the Monte Amarelo volcano on Fogo, in the Cape Verde island group, appears to have been induced by radial rift zones fed by laterally propagating dikes (Day et al 1999b). More recent eruption on Fogo, in 1951 and 1995, appear to be associated with episodes of flank instability caused by now vertically propagating dikes which manifested in normal faulting near the volcano's rift zone.

Proper interpretation of seismic data is crucial in making reasonable predictions of volcanic flank instability associated with forced dike injection, before or during a major eruption. For example, seismic data was used successfully to distinguish between brittle fracture of cold host rock and deformation in the vicinity of intruding magma for the 1995 Fogo eruption in the Cape Verde Islands (Heleno da Silva et al., 1999). Based on composite seismic focal mechanism analysis, the size, depth and direction of the dike feeding the eruption were identified. From this, an estimate of the associated stress field was obtained and correlated with the volcano's flank topography.

Lateral magma migration appears to have occurred on La Palma, beginning in 1936. Stronger seismic harmonic tremors begun in early March 1949. Their foci distribution suggests that magma ascended from chambers beneath the Taburiente volcano and moved along the north-south-trending rift of Cumbre Vieja
(Klügela et al, 1999). As already mentioned, a major eruption, with phreatomagmatic activity, begun at Duraznero crater on the ridge top (1880 m above sea level) on June 24, 1949. The occurrence of xenoliths almost exclusively near the end of the eruption is indicative of wall-rock gravitational collapse at depth. The eruption was associated with subsidence and left a two kilometer-long fracture near the summit.

The volcanic evolution of the 1949 eruption of Cumbre Vieja seems to be typical for La Palma. Prior to and during each eruption, there appears to be considerable shallow magma migration, which is manifested by strong seismicity, intense faulting, and the opening of closely spaced vents
(Klügela et al, 1999). However, it should be noted that none of the historic eruptions in 1430/40, 1585, 1646, 1677, 1712, 1949 or in 1971, triggered a large size slope collapse on the island. Although the flank of Cumbre Vieja may have been somewhat destabilized by the 1949 and 1971 eruptions, there is no indication that a critical condition has been reached, or that the next major eruption will trigger a massive flank failure.

"Tower of Pelée" - Spectacular large lava dome which began rising out of Mt. Pelee's crater floor in October of 1902, and continued growing for a year. The lava dome was 350 to about 500 feet thick at its base and it reached over 1000 feet above the crater floor.

In all cases, forced injection of dikes and kryptodomes - and the concurrent development of mechanical and thermal pore fluid pressures - appear to result in seaward movement of the volcanic flank and may eventually result in partial failures of larger scales. It is believed that mechanical magma intrusion, primarily, and buildup of thermal and supra hydrostatic pore pressure, secondarily , are the more effective mechanisms for the sudden and larger scale volcanic flank failures that can generate local destructive tsunamis.

Such was the apparent mechanism for major past flank failures of Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes along the southern coast of Hawaii, and the cause of the 1868 and 1975 earthquakes - neither of which generated a destructive Pacific-wide mega tsunami (Pararas-Carayannis, 1976a, 1976b, 2002). Finally, it should be noted that even the colossal and super-collosal, Plinian and Ultra-Plinian eruptions of Krakatoa and Santorin volcanoes in 1883 and 1490 B.C. - which were associated with massive flank failures - generated a mega tsunami that was destructive far away from the source regions (Pararas-Carayannis, 2002).

Tsunami Generation Mechanisms of Caribbean Volcanoes

The following is a review of different factors for Caribbean volcanoes that contribute to eruptions episodes, which may range in style and intensity from Strombolian to Vulcanian/Plinian, but are not as catastrophic as the Plinian and Ultra-Plinian episodes of the Krakatoan/Santorin variety.

There is plethora of geologic evidence indicating that volcanoes in the Caribbean region have generated tsunamis, recently and within the last 100,000 years, by a variety of mechanisms. Destructive tsunami waves were generated by violent sub-aerial and submarine eruptions and accompanying earthquakes, by caldera and submarine flank collapses, by subsidence, by atmospheric pressure waves, by lahars, nuées ardentes, pyroclastic flows, or debris avalanches. Also, tsunamis must have been generated from gravitational mass edifice failures due to the characteristic flank instabilities of the volcanoes in this region - even in the absence of obvious triggering events. For example, earth tides could trigger such failures.

Evaluation of flank instabilities of Caribbean stratovolcanoes and their potential for tsunami generation requires a closer examination of the styles, intensity and geometry of eruption mechanisms, of precursor events, of the time history of volcanic episodes, of the geochemistry and composition of the lava and ejecta, as well as an assessment of tectonic processes in the region which result in volcanic arc stresses, back-arc spreading and an increased level of volcanic activity. Small scale flank collapses which result in tsunami generation are a standard phase in the evolution cycles of Caribbean volcanoes (Young 2004).

Another dramatic phot of a massive flank failure of ths Soufriere Hills volcano on Monteserrat of the Lesser Antilles group of islands, which generated a local tsunami.

Finally, it should be pointed out that, in contrast to tsunami generation from seismic sources which cannot be predicted, the generation of tsunamis from volcanic sources can be forecasted with proper monitoring of precursor events, of volcanic activity and of flank instabilities.




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