Calbuco volcano

Volcán Calbuco: what do we know so far?

Around midday on April 24, 2015, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this natural-color image of the ash and gas plume from Calbuco volcano in southern Chile.

Image of Calbuco volcano on April 24, 2015, from NASA’s Earth Observatory. Natural colour image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite. The narrow plume of ash and gas is being blown to the East, away from Calbuco and towards the town of San Carlos de Bariloche.

Detailed assessments of what happened during the April 22-23 eruption of Calbuco, Chile, are now coming in from the agencies responsible for the scientific monitoring of the eruption (SERNAGEOMIN) and for the emergency response (ONEMI). The volcano is well monitored and accessible, and as a result there has been a great deal of high quality information, and imagery, made available very quickly. In addition, there is a wealth of satellite remote sensing data, which together allow us to collect up some basic statistics about the scale of the eruption. So here are some summary statistics for now:

  1. This was the first explosive eruption of Calbuco since a small eruption that lasted 4 hours on 26 August 1972. In the intervening 42 years, there was an episode of strong ‘fumarole’ emission in August 1996, but no recent signs of unrest.
  2. The eruptions of 22-23 April began with little prior warning, and both formed strong, buoyant plumes of volcanic ash that rose high into the atmosphere – captured in some of the most amazing video and timelapse footage of an eruption anywhere in the world. The first eruption started at 18:05 (local time)  on 22 April; the ash column rose to 16 km, and ejected 40 million cubic metres of ash in about 90 minutes. The second eruption began after midnight (01:00 local time, on 23 April), with an ash column that rose to 17 km, and ejected 170 million cubic metres of ash over 6 hours. Based on the volume of material erupted (0.2 cubic km), and the eruption plume height, the combined phases of the eruption can be classified as a VEI 4 event, with an eruption magnitude of 4.4 – 4.6 (depending on the assumed density of the deposits).
  3. The Calbuco eruption was the third large eruption in this region of Chile in the past 10 years; but 4 or 5 times smaller than the eruptions of Chaiten (2008) and Puyehue Cordon-Caulle (2011).
  4. At its greatest extent, the ash cloud covered an area of over 400,000 square kilometres, affecting a population of over 4 million people in Chile and Argentina (modelled using CIESIN). Ash fallout was reported from Concepcion, on the Pacific coast, to Trelew and Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast of Argentina.
  5. The magma involved in the eruption was a typical andesite/dacite, containing volcanic glass and crystals of plagioclase and amphibole, with minor quartz and biotite.
  6. The SO2 gas release from the eruption was substantial – around 0.2 – 0.4 Million tonnes – probably some way short of the levels needed to have a significant impact on the climate system.
  7. The eruption was accompanied by dramatic pulses of lightning (a common feature in volcanic eruptions), and easily visible from space.
  8. At least 6500 people were evacuated as a result of the activity. The nearby town of Ensenada was badly affected by thick pumice and ash deposits, and lahars pose continuing hazards in the drainages that run off Calbuco, and into nearby lakes (Llanquihue, Chapo). The eruption has strongly affected some of the salmon fisheries in the region. Downwind, air transportation has been disrupted in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
  9. At the time of writing, SERNAGEOMIN note that the seismic activity has diminished somewhat , but the volcano remains at a red alert.

Calbuco erupts. April 22, 2015.

Calbuco erupts. April 22, 2015.

Volcan Calbuco, which burst into eruption on April 22nd, is one of more than 74 active volcanoes in Southern Chile that are known to have erupted during the past 10,000 years. Unlike its photogenic neighbour, Osorno, Calbuco is a rather complex and rugged volcano whose eruptive record has posed quite a challenge for Chilean geologists to piece together.

Volcan Calbuco (foreground), viewed on approach to Puerto Montt airport

Volcan Calbuco (foreground), viewed on approach to Puerto Montt airport


Calbuco’s volcanic neighbours, Osorno and Tronador.

The little that we do know about Calbuco’s eruption history comes from two sources: historical observations, and geological/field investigations. The historical record is not well known – other than that it has had repeated eruptions since the late-19th century. The eruption record prior to this is much less well known from written records, although the region has been populated for several millennia. The most spectacular recent eruption was in 1961, that ranked ‘3’ on the Volcanic Explosivity scale (VEI).

One interesting feature of Calbuco is that it is the only volcano in the area that regularly erupts magmas of an ‘intermediate’ composition (andesite), that contain a distinctive hydrous mineral, amphibole. This should make the eruptive products – particularly the far-flung volcanic ash component – quite distinctive. Preliminary work has identified the deposits of at least 13 major explosive eruptions from the past 11,000 years along the Reloncavi Fjord; but none of these have yet  been found further afield, even though they were the products of strong explosive eruptions (certainly up to VEI 5).

Calbuco is one of the many volcanoes in southern Chile that come under the watchful eye of the volcanologists from the Chilean Geological Survey, SERNAGEOMIN, and their Observatory of the Southern Andes (OVDAS); follow @SERNAGEOMIN for updates as the eruption progresses.

Further Reading

Find out more about our ongoing work on the volcanoes of Southern Chile

Fontijn K, Lachowycz SM, Rawson H, Pyle DM, Mather TA, Naranjo J-A, Moreno-Roa H (2014) Late Quaternary tephrostratigraphy of southern Chile and Argentina. Quaternary Science Reviews 89, 70-84. doi 10.1016/j.quascirev.2014.02.007 [Open Access]

Moreno, H., 1999. Mapa de Peligros del volcán Calbuco, Región de los Lagos. Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería. Documentos de Trabajo No.12, escala 1:75.000.

Sellés, D. & Moreno, H., 2011. Geología del volcán Calbuco, Región de los Lagos. Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería, Carta Geológica de Chile, Serie Geología Básica, No.XX, 30 p., 1 mapa escala 1:50.000, Santiago

Sellés, D et al., 2004, Geochemistry of Nevado de Longaví Volcano (36.2°S): a compositionally atypical arc volcano in the Southern Volcanic Zone of the Andes, Revista Geologica de Chile 31.

Watt SFL, Pyle DM, Naranjo J, Rosqvist G, Mella M, Mather TA, Moreno H (2011) Holocene tephrochronology of the Hualaihue region (Andean southern volcanic zone, ~42° S), southern Chile. Quaternary International 246: 324-343

Watt SFL, Pyle DM, Mather TA (2013) The volcanic response to deglaciation: Evidence from glaciated arcs and a reassessment of global eruption records. Earth-Science Reviews 122: 77-102