The brown-gray blob with a light-blue center is Chimborazo Volcano, where the last ice merchant in Ecuador works.  The smoking hill to its right is Tungurahua Volcano.  (Image:  NASA via Wikipedia)

The big brown-gray blob on the left that’s capped with light-blue ice is Chimborazo Volcano, where the last ice merchant works. The smoker on its right is Tungurahua Volcano. (Image: NASA via Wikipedia)

Tungurahua means “throat of fire” in the native Ecuadorian language that predates even the Incas, so the German volcanologist and his guide who climbed this volcano 140 years ago today probably weren’t really the first ones up there.

They were lucky that the “Black Giant” was quiet on February 9, 1873. It’s rambunctious and tends to self-destruct.

It’s erupting right now, in fact, and just had a spectacular explosion on February 1, 2014, that was caught on webcams.

The three Tungurahuas

Scientists call the current mountain Tungurahua III. It sits in the Northern Andean Volcanic Zone and like its companions is active because of plate tectonics.

What happened to the other two?

Well, the first Tungurahua collapsed, as some volcanoes are wont to do, over 14,000 years ago.

Tungurahua II then formed and lasted until around 1000 BC when it went out in a VEI 5 eruption like that of Mount St. Helens in May 1980 (yes, there was also a huge debris avalanche resulting in a horseshoe-shaped crater).

I wonder if that catastrophe affected the trade links (scroll down) Andean peoples had at the time with settlements along the coast of modern Peru.

Anyway, while Mount St. Helens has rebuilt itself fairly quietly so far…

…young T3 was in a hurry.

Per the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program website, volcanologists have so far found evidence for 25 explosive eruptions – generally VEI 3 and 4 – between its birth and the start of the 20th century.

Today, Tungurahua’s glacier-covered summit towers some 3 km (9842 feet) above its base and 5 km (16,480 feet) above sea level.

Peekaboo!  T3 sees you!  (Image:  Dave Lonsdale)

Peekaboo! T3 sees you! (Image: Dave Lonsdale)

Modern Tungurahua

A hundred years isn’t very long to a volcano and yet T3 erupted at least twice and possible a total of five times during the 20th century.

At least five people died during the course of an almost 10-year-long eruption that began in October 1999 and was violent enough to force all 25,000 residents of Baños de Agua Santa, at the foot of the volcano, to evacuate.

Is anybody else having "Dante's Peak" flashbacks? (Image source)

Is anybody else having “Dante’s Peak” flashbacks? (Image source)

The townspeople moved back as soon as they could, though, for the volcano has given them hot springs, over 60 waterfalls and beautiful terrain – natural gifts (link is in Spanish) that make Baños one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ecuador.

In July 2009, Tungurahua quieted down and stayed that way for the rest of the year.

It rumbled back into life on the first day of the new year and then settled down at the end of July 2010, only to begin a new eruptive phase (still ongoing in 2014) on November 22nd.

T3 tourists having fun on November 26, 2010.  (Image:  Warren Talbot)

T3 tourists having fun on November 26, 2010. (Image: Warren Talbot)

The Big One, February 1, 2014

Now, Tungurahua often has strombolian eruptions. They’re very pretty and not too dangerous for people who are at some distance from the crater.

I’m not going to add a link to “strombolian” to explain what that is. This image from T3’s Spanish Wikipedia page says it all:

Tungurahua in 2011.

Tungurahua in 2011.

¡Tan hermoso!!

Relatively smooth-flowing basaltic lava lends itself to strombolian activity and fountaining, but this volcano also has “sticky” andesitic lava that can make it turn very violent very quickly.

Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute keeps a close eye on it, including public webcams.

Online viewers got a shock when they checked the cams late in the afternoon on February 1st.


It wasn’t an edifice-leveling blast, fortunately, but it was a huge explosion. (The note near the end of this time-lapse video explains that the green glint is camera artifact, not a UFO.)

Fortunately, as far as I know, no one was killed or injured.

Here’s the report, per the Geophysics Institute (IG) by way of the Smithsonian, on the events leading up to, during and after that eruption:

IG reported that during the morning of 30 January the seismic network recorded an increase in the number of events at Tungurahua including some low-magnitude explosions, long-period events, and seismic tremor. Ashfall was reported in Pungal (40 km SSW), Penipe (15 km SW), and Palictahua in the district of Penipe. Cloud cover prevented ground observations, but IG noted that satellite images indicated the presence of ash plumes and thermal anomalies. The number and size of explosions increased at night during 30-31 January, and then a sharp decline in activity was noted on 31 January, characterized by very low seismicity. At 1701 an explosion generated an ash plume that rose 2 km and drifted SE and SW.

On 1 February, between 0800 and 1700, a swarm of volcano-tectonic earthquakes occurred in the upper conduit. Two moderately-sized explosions, at 1712 and 1732, generated ash plumes that rose 5 km, and pyroclastic flows that traveled 500 m down the NE and NW flanks. A larger explosion at 1739 produced an ash plume that rose 8 km and drifted SE and possibly SSE. Based on reports from IG, satellite images, pilot observations, web-camera images, and the Guayaquil MWO, the Washington VAAC reported that the ash plume rose to an estimated altitude of 13.7 km (45,000 ft) a.s.l., and drifted S at high altitudes and SW at lower altitudes. IG noted that pyroclastic flows traveled 7-8 km, reaching the base of the volcano and traveling over the Achupashal Baños- Penipe highway. Continuous ash-and-gas emissions followed; ash fell in multiple areas and total darkness was reported in Chacauco (NW). Explosions occurred every minute and vibrated structures in local towns. Pyroclastic flows descended the SW, W, NW, and NE flanks, and stopped short of towns and infrastructure. Ash emissions were sustained through the rest of the evening, and Strombolian explosions ejected incandescent blocks 800 m above the crater that fell and rolled 500 m down the flanks.

Activity gradually declined at 1900 until 2100 when explosions became more sporadic. On 2 February explosions at 0659, 0723, and 0801 were followed by ash emissions. During 2-3 February at least 10 explosions occurred and were heard in areas several kilometers away. On 3 February an ash plume rose 4 km and drifted N, reaching Quito as a mist of suspended very fine material that lingered most of the day.

Areas close to the volcano had already been evacuated but people were still traveling on nearby highways. One traveler filmed an oncoming pyroclastic flow from the blast (note that they were smart enough to find shelter behind a hill once the initial shock wore off. These flows are terrible and very unpredictable – don’t ever get in their way).


More information

Webcams (same link as in text)

Categories: Sunday morning volcano, volcanoes

Tags: , , , ,

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