A 1951 Tragedy in Papua New Guinea Provides an Important Reference in the Volcanologic Literature

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Ever heard of Higaturu? How about Popendetta? You'll find the town of Popendetta on a map of Papua New Guinea, about 90 miles northeast of Port Moresby, but you won't find Higaturu on current maps.

A 1951 Tragedy in Papua New Guinea Provides an Important Reference ...

In the background is a hospital building destroyed by the nu?e ardente. The upper part of the image shows a portion of a flagpole that was bent over by the force of the flow. [Taylor 1958].

(Public domain.)

Higaturu used to be on the map—only 7 or 8 miles from Popendetta. It was the District Headquarters of a remote region blanketed with dense rain forest. About 6 miles to the south sat Mount Lamington—a semi-circle of peaks around the head of a valley that drained toward Higaturu. No one—residents of Higaturu or anyone else—knew that Lamington was a dormant volcano.

On January 15, 1951, some residents noticed fresh landslides on the steep inner faces of the semi-circle of peaks. In the afternoon, a thin column of smoke was seen rising from base of the peaks. These phenomena increased a bit the next day. In the afternoon, Higaturu was shaken by a mild earthquake, the first of many that day. On January 17, the vapor plume was more vigorous and carried a little ash. Earthquakes occurred about every 7 minutes.

Activity escalated markedly over the next three days. The emissions were much more voluminous, were more heavily ash-laden, changed spasmodically, and were accompanied by subterranean rumbling sounds. The ash plume reached a height of 25,000 to 30,000 feet. Earthquakes became almost incessant, and some houses collapsed. There were reports of people holding onto ropes tied to trees to keep from falling down. At night the ash plume was laced with a variety of strange electrical discharges. In places, the stench of volcanic gases—probably sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide—became unbearable. Inhabitants of some small villages closest to the volcano moved out.

All this was merely the prelude to a colossal explosion at 10:40 Sunday morning, January 21. At that moment, a vast quantity of volcanic ash and gas was ejected vertically from the volcano. The gas-ash mixture was denser than air, so it fell back to earth as a great fountain and swept out radially from the source vent. This ground—hugging mixture-a pyroclastic flow--completely devastated an elliptical area of 68 square miles surrounding Mount Lamington. Nearly 3,000 people in Higaturu and nearby villages died.

About one day later, G.A.M. Taylor, an Australian volcanologist, arrived on the scene. His careful documentation and analysis of all aspects of the great eruption, as well as its precursory and subsequent phenomena, has become a classic in the volcanologic literature.

Unlike the laboratory sciences, which permit observations at the time and place of a scientist's choosing, volcanological observations are usually hard to come by. Eruptions at most volcanoes are separated by long periods of dormancy, and some types of eruptions occur infrequently, even on a global basis. Furthermore, an experienced volcanologist is required to make and record key observations. So the right observer needs to be at the right volcano and at the right time. This only happens occasionally, so rare, well-documented eruptions are precious. Such eruptions become "reference eruptions" that volcanologists refer to when, for example, they try to understand the processes that control eruptive behavior or want to forecast the likely outcome at a restless volcano.

There's no official list of reference eruptions—volcanologists with different interests would produce different lists. But a few eruptions would appear on nearly all lists.

Most lists would begin with the 1902 eruption of Mount Pel?e on Martinique, in the French West Indies. This eruption destroyed the island's chief city and killed virtually all of its 26,000 inhabitants. The lethal phenomenon—now known as a pyroclastic flow—was unknown to science before 1902. Many authors consider the studies of this eruption to mark the beginning of modern volcanology.

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens revealed that viscous magma forcing its way into a volcanic cone can cause the volcano's flank to collapse in a massive landslide. The landslide, in turn, depressurizes the magma, which then explodes laterally, producing an enormous pyroclastic flow. This mechanism was unknown to science before 1980.

Kīlauea's ongoing Pu`u `Ō `ō-Kupaianaha eruption will become a reference eruption because of it complexity and duration. Beginning in January 1983, it has been the longest well-documented Hawaiian eruption. Volcanologists will be studying it for many years to come.


Volcano Activity Update

Kīlauea Volcano continues to be active. A vent in Halema`uma`u Crater is erupting elevated amounts of sulfur dioxide gas and very small amounts of ash. Resulting high concentrations of sulfur dioxide in downwind air have closed the south part of Kīlauea caldera and produced occasional air quality alerts in more distant areas, such as Pahala and communities adjacent to Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, during kona wind periods. On September 5, scientists observed a 50-m- (160 ft) diameter lava lake about 100 m (330 ft) below the vent rim on the floor of Halema`uma`u; the lava cannot be seen from the rim of Halema`uma`u Crater or Jaggar Museum Overlook. There have been several small ash-emission events from the vent, lasting only minutes, in the last week.

Pu`u `Ō`ō continues to produce sulfur dioxide at even higher rates than the vent in Halema`uma`u Crater. Trade winds tend to pool these emissions along the West Hawai`i coast, while Kona winds blow these emissions into communities to the north, such as Mountain View, Volcano, and Hilo.

Lava continues to erupt from fissure D of the July 21, 2007, eruption and flows toward the ocean through a well-established lava tube. The ocean entry at Waikupanaha was interrupted twice in the past week in response to back-to-back deflation/inflation (DI) events at Kīlauea summit. There were small, short-lived breakouts on the coastal plain early in the week as the eruption recovered from the two pauses in lava supply. The ocean entry had recovered by the second half of the week and hosted frequent small littoral explosions.

Be aware that active lava deltas can collapse at any time, potentially generating large explosions. This may be especially true during times of rapidly changing lava supply conditions. Do not venture onto the lava deltas. Even the intervening beaches are susceptible to large waves generated during delta collapse; avoid these beaches. In addition, steam plumes rising from ocean entries are highly acidic and laced with glass particles. Check Civil Defense Web site or call 961-8093 for viewing hours.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Four earthquakes were located beneath the summit this past week. Continuing extension between locations spanning the summit indicates slow inflation of the volcano.

Four earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island were reported felt within the past week. A magnitude-2.0 earthquake occurred at 8:21 p.m., H.s.t., on Thursday, September 18, 2008, and was located 3 km (2 miles) southeast of Kīlauea summit, at a depth of 3 km (2 miles). A magnitude-4.3 earthquake occurred at 5:59 p.m. on Friday, September 19, 2008, and was located 6 km (4 miles) northeast of Ka`ena Point on Kīlauea's south flank at a depth of 10 km (6 miles). A magnitude-3.0 earthquake occurred at 7:49 a.m. on Tuesday, September 23, 2008, and was located 32 km (20 mile) northeast of Honoka`a at a depth of 32 km (20 miles). A magnitude-2.2 earthquake occurred at 7:25 a.m. on Wednesday, September 24, 2008, and was located 4 km (3 miles) northeast of Kukuihaele at a depth of 30 km (19 miles).

Visit our Web site for daily Kīlauea eruption updates, a summary of volcanic events over the past year, and nearly real-time Hawai`i earthquake information. Kīlauea daily update summaries are also available by phone at (808) 967-8862. Questions can be emailed to askHVO@usgs.gov.