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, Atlantic 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.
Volcanoes of the Eastern Caribbean Island Arc (Web graphic of West Indies University)
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 in the Eastern Caribbean Region have unstable flanks. Destructive local tsunamis may be also 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 following brief report describes recent volcanic episodes in the Eastern Caribbean and the tsunami or the tsunami-like waves which were generated. More specifically, the report reviews recent volcanic eruptions 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.
Montserrat Island Tsunamis
The recent historical record documents several tsunamis at Montserrat Island. Earthquakes in the area generated some of these, while others were generated by pyroclastic flows of the Soufriere Hills stratovolcano, by debris avalanches, and by major flank failures and landslides. Also, the coastal geomorphology of the eastern part of Montserrat near the Chance Peak of the Soufriere Hills volcano indicates that massive landslides must generated local tsunamis in the distant past. According to the more recent historical record, an earthquake in the region on September 13, 1824, resulted in a remarkable rise and fall of sea level at Plymouth. Another major earthquake near Antigua reportedly triggered landslides into the sea in Antigua, Montserrat and Nevis Islands. However, most of the noteworthy tsunamis were generated recently as a result of the renewed activity of the Soufriere Hills volcano.
Debris avalanches and pyroclastic (lava) flows associated with the 1999 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat reached the sea and generated a tsunami. (Photo: Montserrat Volcanic Observatory)
On December 26, 1997, following a major eruption of Soufriere Hills a landslide – assisted by pyroclastic flows – reached the sea along the southwestern coast of the island and generated significant tsunami waves. (Heinrich et al., 1998, 1999a,b, 2001). Maximum runup of the waves, about ten kilometers away from the source region, was about 3m, with an inland inundation of about 80 meters. Similar debris avalanches and pyroclastic flows associated with a 1999 eruption of Soufriere Hills reached the sea and generated another local tsunami.
Travel time chart of the tsunami generated by the 1999 debris avalanche at Montserrat Island.
The height of the waves in the immediate area ranged from12m but attenuated rapidly. By the time they reached the islands of Guadeloupe and Antigua, the maximum runup heights were only about 50 cm. The most recent tsunami occurred on July 12, 2003, following a major collapse of a lava dome (Pelinovsky et al 2004). A pyroclastic flow reached the sea and generated a tsunami, which was reported to be about 4 meters on Montserrat and about 0.5-1 m at Guadeloupe.
Pyroclastic flows 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”)
Mt Pelée on Martinique is another active stratovolcano with unstable flanks composed primarily of pyroclastic rocks. As such, it must have generated numerous tsunamis in the distant geologic past. The first reported violent eruption of Mt Pelée occurred in 1792.
Mt. Pelée’s eruption of May 8, 1902, killed 29,000 people and destroyed the city of St. Pierre. Local destructive tsunamis were triggered by a lahar, a nuée ardente and by flank failures. (Photograph by Heilprin taken on May 26, 1902)
The devastation of the town of St. Pierre on Martinique Island by a Nuée Ardente of the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée. (Photograph by Heilprin, 1902).
The record does not indicate whether the eruptions caused flank failures on the island or generated tsunamis. Such events could have occurred but not reported. Even the recent historical record is unclear. For example, there are reports of observed sea level agitations on Martinique in 1767, but it is not known whether these were tsunami waves generated by a distant earthquake or an island flank failure.
On 30 November 1823, an earthquake in the area generated a tsunami, which caused damage to St. Pierre Harbor. In 1824, another earthquake near St. Pierre was probably responsible for a very “high tide” that reportedly grounded several ships in the harbor.
In the spring of 1902, Mt Pelée began erupting again. According to historical records, as the summit eruptions intensified, the water of the Etang Sec crater lake heated to near boiling point. On May 5, the crater rim broke, and extremely hot water cascaded down River Blanche.
The hot water, mixed with loose pyroclastic debris and mud, formed a massive 35-meter high lahar that reached a speed of about 100 kilometers per hour. The hot volcanic mudflow buried everything in its path. Near the mouth of River Blanche, north of St. Pierre, it hit a rum distillery and killed 23 workers. The lahar continued into the sea, where it generated 4-5 meter tsunami waves, which flooded the low-lying areas along the waterfront of St. Pierre. Subsequently, on May 8, 1902, a catastrophic nuée ardente cascaded for about 6 km down-slope from the central crater of the volcano, at a velocity of more than 140 Km per hour, destroying completely St. Pierre, and killing 29,000 of its inhabitants. According to the historical record, there were only two survivors one in a prison dungeon. There is not much information on the tsunami that the nuée ardente must have generated, as the immensity of St. Pierre’s destruction overshadowed everything else.
There is not much information about tsunamis generated from eruptions or flank failures of the Soufriere volcano on St. Vincent Island, although several must have occurred. The historical record shows that the volcano erupted violently in1718, 1812, 1902, 1971-1972 and in 1979. The 1902 eruption was the most catastrophic and killed 1,600 people. The record shows that, on May 7, 1902, a day before the most violent eruption of Mt Pelée on Martinique, tsunami-like disturbances of up to 1 meter were reported for the harbors of Grenada, Barbados, and Saint Lucia. Although the origin of these waves is not known with certainty, the most likely source could have been pyroclastic flows reaching the sea from the violent eruption of Soufriere volcano on St. Vincent. Alternatively, the sea level disturbances could have been generated by an unreported flank failure of Mt Pelée, which was also erupting at that time. The historical record documents that on May 7, 1902, the submarine communication cables from Martinique to the outside world were cut.
Kick’em Jenny is an active and growing submarine volcano about 8 km off the North side of the island of Grenada, which erupted frequently during the 20th Century (Smithsonian Institution, 1999). There have been several local tsunamis generated by these eruptions. The volcano’s first recorded eruption reportedly occurred in 1939, but undoubtedly there were many unreported occurrences before that date. Since 1939 there have been at least ten more eruptions. The better known are those that occurred in 1943, 1953, 1965, 1966, 1972 and 1974. The 1974 eruption was major. The last known major eruption occurred in 1990.
Volcanoes of Grenada (USGS graphic)
The 1939 and 1974 eruptions ejected columns above the sea surface. At the peak of the July 24, 1939 eruption – which lasted more than 24 hours – a cloud rose 275 meters above the sea surface (Tilling, 1985; Seismic Research Unit Website, Univ. of West Indies, 2001). The event was witnessed by a large number of people in northern Grenada. Kick’em Jenny’s 1939 eruption also generated a series of tsunami-like waves, which had amplitudes of about 2 meters in northern Grenada and the southern Grenadines. The waves probably reached the west coast of Barbados but were not noticed as their heights had attenuated significantly.
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