2009: The Volcanic Year in Review

Here it is, my attempt to recap a year's worth of volcanic events. By no means is this supposed to capture every event, but rather the highlight/lowlights and what most captivated me during 2009. I'll be announcing the winner of the 2009 Pliny for Volcanic Event of the Year tomorrow.

Waimangu Geothermal Valley in New Zealand, taken in January 2009 by Erik Klemetti.

The year started out with a trip to New Zealand (well, for me at least) and vistas of the Waimangu Valley, formed in the 1886 eruption of Tarawera on the North Island. We were also still thinking about the late 2008 earthquake swarm at Yellowstone, which didn't lead to anything in 2009. British scientists suggested that Antarctica has been experiencing subglacial eruption, which might account for some of the melting of the ice on the southern continent. However, what really got our attention in January was the Mt. Redoubt in Alaska, with the volcano being put on alert by AVO on January 26th - leading to months of speculation about what might happen. By the end of the month (4 days later), the volcano was all over the news and concern about the Drift River Oil Terminal was high.

It was the Redoubt wait that dominated the volcano news during February. Earthquakes, steam and speculation were the order of the day. We also got news of recent eruptions at NW-Rota 1 from Dr. Ed Kohut off on a research cruise in the Pacific. Chaiten was still going strong, but the social fallout from the relocation of the town of Chaiten was proving to be a major problem was well. Finally, volcano monitoring made a surprise splash at the end of the month when Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal suggested that monitoring volcanoes was "wasteful" - he learned quickly that badmouthing volcanologists is not a good idea.

We had to wait most of the month, but right after AVO thought things were winding down at Redoubt, the volcano goes and erupts anyway on March 23rd. It wasn't a little eruption either, throwing ash to over 50,000 ft / 15 km and eventually closing the international airport in Anchorage. March ended up being a double feature, with the surprise - and very impressive - eruption of Hunga Tonga - Hunga Ha'apai in the island nation of Tonga. This eruption started as an undersea eruption noticed by commercial pilots in the area and quickly became a classic island-building event. We also had a lot of noise about the earthquake swarms in the Bombay Beach area long the San Andreas fault in southern California. March also marked my move from Wordpress to ScienceBlogs - so I send a special thanks to all the readers who came with me and all my new readers - if you can believe it, Eruptions will be just short of half a million visits in the 10 months since coming to ScienceBlogs!

Llaima in Chile erupting in April 2009.

April ended up being my busiest month - with over 50 posts in the month alone. A lot of that was, again, dominated by Redoubt's activity that continued throughout the month. We also saw impressive eruptions of Llaima in Chile and new fissure eruptions at Fernandina in the Galapagos Islands. I addressed some concerns people have on the dangers of geothermal drilling causing an eruption (short answer: probably not). We also got an inside look at the USGS Volcano Hazards Program and I got all worked up about some questionable volcano journalism (what a surprise).

May marked two anniversaries: one was for Eruptions, the other, more important one marked one year of eruptions at Chaiten in Chile. The eruption that got me on this blogging track was still going strong after a year, with at least three domes growing inside the Chaiten caldera. Of course, we were also still waiting for the big dome collapse at Redoubt as well, but little came of that. We also got the first glimpse of West Mata erupting in the Lau Basin of the Pacific - the media would really get fired up about this in December when video was released. However, the most exciting event of the month was the earthquake swarm and potential threat of volcanic eruption in the Harrat Lunayyir region of Saudi Arabia. At times, I felt like I was the only person covering the event, getting reports from people on the ground in Saudi Arabia - but when all was said-and-done, no eruption came.

We had two volcanoes headed in opposite directions in June. First, Redoubt settled down for the summer. Second, Sarychev Peak in Russia blew its top in a spectacular fashion - disrupting air traffic all across the Pacific. The eruption was a major sulfur dioxide event and provided one of the most stunning volcano images - well, ever. The eruption did a number to the small island of Matau. Sarychev Peak wasn't the only volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula making noise: Shiveluch also had a major eruption. In June, we also got the first taste of the "Mt. Saint Helens: Supervolcano" controversy and media disaster that would come back later in the year. Finally, my colleagues at UC Davis, Naomi Marks, Peter Schiffman and Robert Zeirenberg, made the news by drilling into an active rhyolite magma in Iceland - nice way to end the month!

Sarychev Peak erupting in June 2009.

Volcanically speaking, things quieted down during summer after a very busy spring. The biggest news for July was likely eruption at Mando Hararo in Ethiopia - adding more fissure volcanism in the East African Rift. Of course, it might have been most fascinating to Eruptions readers because one of your own might have been the first to notice the eruption actually occurred. Over in Hawai`i, a rockfall captured on camera temporarily "snuffed out" the Halema`uma`u vent, but it didn't take long for lava to retake the crater. Mayon offered foreshadowing of things to come with evacuations prompted by the beginning of the current eruption.

August was especially quite around these parts - thanks partially to my move from California to Ohio, but also to the fact that, well, not much happened (so much for 2009 being an "anomalously volcanic" year). We started the month with some news that there might have been a volcanic eruption on Venus. I've since lost track of the research on this event - anybody have any new theories in what happened on our sister planet? Kamchatka was in the news, mostly because it was such a volcanically active area in 2009 - 5 volcanoes were erupting at once during August - and a new geyser was found as well. And if you need something to read in the long winter months, check out my favorite volcano books.

Things picked back up once the fall began. I dabbled in the world of "manmade volcanoes" (short answer: bad idea unless they erupt a dinosaur). In what now seems premature, the eruption at Soufriere Hills on Montserrat was declared "over" after 6 months of quiet at the volcano. We all know what came two weeks later. The international media was all over the proclamation that Australia was "overdue" for a volcanic eruption - a notion that most people think is fear-mongering at its best. There was some suggestion of something happening at Mt. Rainier - but what exactly is still a mystery. Finally, after 6 months of eruptions and noise, AVO lowered the warning level at Redoubt to green (normal). The eruption was over ... or is it?

Nevado del Huila in Colombia steaming from the summit in 2009.

With Redoubt out of the picture (for now), a couple of new volcanoes took to the streets. Gaua in Vanuatu erupted, prompting evacuations of people living near the island volcano. We also saw more activity at Huila in Colombia - it was a busy year for volcanic eruptions in Colombia, with eruptions at Huila and Galeras, along with signs of life from the slumbering volcano of Machin (enough to prompt the Colombian government to ponder diverting a major highway to avoid it getting cut by a Machin eruption). A study in Nature was published showing that the magma erupted during 2008-09 at Chaiten shot through the crust - and then you got to ask Dr. Jonathan Castro, coauthor of the study - all about Chaiten. I also attended the GSA Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon, where I found out some fun information on Toba, New York kimberlites and Mackenzie Pass.

Two non-events dominated a lot of the discussion during November. First was the attention paid to the idea that geologists could "destroy Naples" through exploratory drilling into the Campei Flegrei. Second was the non-eruption of Karkar in Papau New Guinea - we all thought a major eruption occurred, but now it looks like the satellites might have been a bit confused, thanks to reports from the ground. Dr. Boris Behncke answered your questions about Italian volcanoes. Both Gaua and Soufriere Hills were full-steam-ahead when it came to their respective eruptions.

Mayon erupting in December 2009.

As 2009 closed out, all eyes turned to the Philippines and the eruption of Mayon. The volcano produced some impressive lava flows and avalanches, but as of December 30, the big explosive event that PHIVOLCS is thinking is in the cards has yet to arrive. Large-scale evacuations have occurred, but keeping people out of the danger zone has been problematic. Piton de la Fournaise on Reunion Island actually erupted first in November, but the December eruption was captured in time-lapse video, showing the growth of the fissure vent eruption on the basaltic shield volcano. Soufriere Hills stayed in the news, causing power problems on Montserrat and ash from the volcano cancelled flights as far away as Puerto Rico. And in a bit of a surprise, as 2009 closed out, Redoubt was put back on Yellow Alert status after new signs of potential activity.

So there is 2009 in a nutshell ... any predictions for 2010 (volcanically speaking)?

More like this

2009 is over! If you missed the Volcanic Year in Review, check out my summary of the volcanic events that captivated many of us over the past year. However, only one event will get the coveted 2009 Pliny for Volcanic Event of the Year. A lot of you wrote in with votes and comments - I thank you -…
Chaiten in Chile erupting in January 2009. Even after over a year of activity, Eruptions readers are still captivated by the volcano. Thanks for sending me your questions about volcanoes and volcanism. I'll try to tackle some hear - but as always, keep the questions coming! Send them to For those…
Sally Sennert from the Smithsonian Institution sent me an email to say that this week's USGS/Smithsonian Institute Weekly Volcanic Report will be delayed due to the inclement weather in the Washington DC area. She can't connect with the server, so the report can't be updated on the Smithsonian…
Fernandina, EcuadorFernandina erupting in 2009. UPDATE 4/13/09 at 12PM: The NASA Earth Observatory has posted a nice MODIS image showing the plume from the Fernandina eruption drifting out over the Pacific. We have a few more details on the ongoing eruption at Fernandina in the Galapagos Islands.…

No mention of Anak Krakatau?

I gather it's died down for now, but it was quite spectacular early in the year. I've been wondering what its recent eruptions have done to its height, but I find it difficult to find much about it.

David - Yeah, not everything made "the list", but Anak did its usual - some spectacular Strombolian eruptions.

If its not too late in the year, I'd like to formally propose a theory. I believe that renewed volcanic activity is directly caused by volcanologists declaring the prior eruptive phase to be "over".

I'll propose a test for this theory as soon as I find a recently dormant volcano where nobody lives, since nearby residents would likely come after me if I used them as guinea pigs.

This follows my previous theory: that lightning actually never struck twice, until people made the phrase popular.

@Fritz: good thinking Ollie!

Personally, I don't believe any volcano or crater is actually extinct. Dormant, yes. But extinct? I could be wrong, of course. But when a volcano comes up in a corn field in Mexico, wouldn't you think one could come up just about anywhere? It would be pretty difficult for magma to come up in the Sierras, but it could happen.

Anyway, I look for Redoubt to wake up again and I also look for the crater at Kilauea to begin fountaining sometime. It may not because it fills and drains, but you never know. It was really roiling the other day. And then Kamchatka. Somebody there will erupt and it just remains as to who.

I notice that there are repeated small quakes at Mammoth Mt. and I suspect they are techtonic. For it to start getting restless is a long shot.

And what about the Sisters in Oregon? Has the inflation there deflated? It sure made the news when they discovered it with GPS.

That's enough for now.

Happy New year Erik and all who post and come to this site. Love it.

My prediction is that one or two volcano surprises in 2010 will help bring the eruptions log up to a cummulative count of 2M visitors for all of 2010. In fact, the New York Times included a link to to the Eruptions blog (re. the carribean flight cancelations due to Soufrier activity) yesterday. Also, that human caused climate change deniers will increasingly look to volcano science,(rather, psuedo science), to support their assertions that it isn't happening.

I am pretty certain that Etna will be back in the news in 2010 ... tonight it's displaying its usual glow from a vent near the summit, and the full moon is shining on Sicily, where we have an unusually mild (not to say, warm) winter.

And then, thanks Erik for all the effort put into this blog, and the occasional fun you let us have. I wish you and everybody else here a wonderful, spectacular, splendid, volcanic 2010.

@Boris, I forgot about Etna. I think it will do a good show sometime in 2010. I wish the SE Crater would go back to the Stomboli eruptions like it did in the mid '90s. It was so cool. And before Etna Treking took down their cams, my DH and I watched the eruption in 2006 (not sure of the year LOL) for six hours! That was so neat to watch blocks come down over the rim. We just couldn't take our eyes off of it. Then all at once they shut down the cams. Now they are back, and not as good as they were, but at least they are there.

As long as Etna doesn't do a lot of damage, let'er rip.

Thanks for answering all our questions, too, Boris.

Guessing the future is very chancy. While anything can happen from Rabaul to Redoubt to Ranier or Mayon to Machin to Mammoth Mountain and the Philipines, Indonesia, Kamchatka, Alaskan Islands, South and Central America all have the ability to unleash large eruptions --- I'll just make a guess/prediction that Africa will have some exciting activity because the continent is slowly rifting apart.

I suppose the finding of the extra hot magma in the area may have caught my imagination and just led me to think that the volcanic activity in the area has some legs to it and there may be a long-term upswing in geological activity in the area and so we may continue witnessing the start of what will be a large lava field that will cover a vast area.

I will guess that Machin might hold off for a few years in erupting.

I'll keep watching Lazufre, but I guess any volcanic activity there will be more than two years away - or maybe even hundreds of years provided it keeps growing.

An American science TV show had an episode on Vesuvius. They pointed out that eruptions at Vesuvius have historically trailed big earthquakes by a number of years. Now, the eruption that destroyed Pompeii was also proceeded by a strong quake about 15 or 17 years earlier (can't exactly remember). This was something I viewed on yet another American TV show. Some scientists wonder if last years deadly earthquake in Italy could already have pulled the trigger on the next Vesuvius eruption. (My hunch is that Vesuvius will probably stay dormant for at least the next three years - even if the trigger was pulled.)

Ranier will probably make it into the news - even if it doesn't erupt. Some scientist will make some statement about how dangerous it is. It can easily send a lot of material into a nearby town - and the healthy might be able to flee by foot when the automated alarm goes off.

So my only guess is activity at the rift valley in Africa.

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 31 Dec 2009 #permalink

The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of endemic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and especially active volcanoes.

First of my volcanic related predictions would have to be the threat of lahars in relation to the current eruption of mayon. Think it woul be wise to relocate people whilst they are out of the danger zone so to speak....

Wild guess predictions would be a eruption of Mauna Loa. Think that one is due. Maybe one of the New Zealand volcanoes could spring into life...White Island perhaps..
Vesuvius remains ever present in my mind but I'm saying nothing regarding that one.

I think I would like to see some spectacular eruption in some unpopulated area...Erebus maybe

Unfortunately my pin for a disasster falls on the Eastern seaboard area of America not gonna say unless prompted but thats the general area.

Happy New Year and keep up the good work Erik!!!!

By stephen tierney (not verified) on 01 Jan 2010 #permalink

Vesuvius may well stay silent for many centuries - consider that before it erupted in AD 79 to destroy Pompeii and other Roman towns, it probably was quiescent for 800 years, and the second worst of its eruptions in history, in 1631, was preceded by nearly 500 years of inactivity. Now we're at 66 years, so that's not very much in comparison.
I'd rather be worried about those Italian volcanoes that there is much less talk about, especially abroad - like Campi Flegrei, on the other (western) side of Naples (last eruption was in 1538) and Vulcano on the southernmost of the Aeolian islands (last eruption 1888-1890). Both have shown significant unrest in the past few decades, and my guts tell me at least one of them will erupt before Vesuvius will come back to life.
Mauna Loa? It seemed to be building up to an eruption a few years ago, but presently there seems to be very little going on there, so I don't really expect it to do something very soon.
Somebody named Unzen as a candidate for an eruption in the near future. My guess is it will not erupt for several centuries - the previous eruption (prior to 1990-1995) was in 1792, so that one seems to erupt quite infrequently.
I'd imagine some other Japanese volcano to do something major this year - it's been quite a while since there's been a significant eruption in Japan (10 years, since Miyakejima's caldera collapse and Usu's phreatic eruption/uplift in 2000). Back in the 1970s and 1980s there would be one major eruption in Japan roughly every 3 years.

Let's hope that one in the Canary Islands doesn't slide into the ocean! The eastern sea board would be history. As for Mammoth Mt., I don't think that one is going to do anything. I would be more concerned about the resurgent dome in Long Valley. But the tiny quakes are coming and they seem to be on the fault.

Just about anything can happen. Even Lassen could do something, though it is very remote that it will do anything except just sit there and be a nice climb for somebody who wants to climb a volcano. Been there and done that---twice. Nice climb. 15% grade at most, 5 mile round trip, 2000' gain in altitude. I wish I could do it again.

Yellowstone. That beautiful place that has geysers that put on shows and seems safe enough. Well, it is at the moment even if it is putting out a lot of C02.

And this global warming thing...why is it that they forget how much S02 and C02 is being released into the atmosphere from all the volcanoes that are fuming and spewing and erupting? What was it Boris said about Etna releasing 800 tonnes of C02/day? Or was it more? Anyway, that is only ONE volcano! How about Kilauea?

Oh well, we will have a good time watching to see where the next eruption will be and I just hope it doesn't cause a lot of havoc.

Take care when any of you are on any of these volatile mountains. But if you have a chance, climb Mt. Lassen. You won't be sorry you did.

For parochial reasons more than anything, I think something might happen in NZ/Kermadec Trench. There is a lot of rifting in the TVZ (18 mm) a year, currently there are about 5 active earthquake swarms in the TVZ (one of them under the major vent of the last Taupo eruption (Horomatangi reef in the middle of the lake) and one right under Mt Edgecumbe north of Mt. Tarawera. Four of the swarms are on precisely the same fault lines as the most recent eruptions in the zone. An intriguing one is just south of Taupo in a geothermal area also in a graben setting (Roto Aira). And there have been a couple of small earthquakes in the Auckland volcanic field recently (not a seismically active region at all). The AVC intrigues me a lot - a young mafic field erupting through lithic crust in a region without any obvious seismic activity. Most strange. BTW it is also said to erupt about once every six hundred years.

.. and to extend my insular thinking a little further north. The rates of subduction up around Tonga are huge and there is major earthquake activity up there too. I think we could easily see more island building or submarine activity from that region too, not to forgot the entire Bismarck Island/New Guinea/Indonesia chain where the same applies.

By bruce stout (not verified) on 01 Jan 2010 #permalink

oh bugger...lol of course I meant the western sea board in my above comment, thanks dianne for bringing that to my attention. East lol that would be unbelievable!!!

By stephen tierney (not verified) on 01 Jan 2010 #permalink

Living in Chile, the LLaima and Chaiten eruptions were high point over the past several months. I'm in the process of finishing a book on the Valdivia Earthquake of 1960 (Mw 9.5) and am including a chapter on volcanism which resulted from the events at that time and have been searching for photos of the Cordon Caulle eruption that began May 24, 1960. If anyone has anything appropriate I'd be very grateful and will include all appropriate citations.

By Steven J. Benedetti (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

Well, Stephen, They have been talking about that volcano in the Canarys (or is it the Azores)that if the part of it that is very precarious slid into the ocean, there would be a tsunami that would probably wipe out the eastern coast.

I agree with you about the west coast. We get a lot of quakes here and there was a swarm just at the foot of Mt. Lassen that had about 90 small quakes. There was a new one on Mammoth Mountain this morning and I check to see how deep they are and they are shallow---about three miles down. I think there are about 20 of them right now. Since there is a fault right there, I think they are techtonic rather than magmatic.

Anyway, I think there will be a lot more activity near Tonga, also. They do get a lot of quakes there. That entire area is so active because of the trenches and subductions that there could be a lot of volcanic activity with just the right amount of shaking and how the waves interact with the volcanoes.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens and where. I just wish I could go see some of the eruptions---at a safe distance, though. :-)

Speaking of quakes, there was a 6.2 in the Mariannas region this morning at 12:45am my time. And Tonga area had a 5. It seems that Tonga has one almost every other day in the 5 range.

We will definitely see more of that.

I know that volcanos and earthquakes are around for centuries, but I can not help thinking of these words "earthquakes in one place after another, when you see all these things occuring, know the end is near" All these things being things which humans can not control and an intensity in activity not previously witnessed.Can it be we are witnessing a time in history which will be catastrophic and affect every nation on the planet? Whether a person is spiritual or not will not alter the facts.Can it be said that both earthquake and volcano activity has increased alarmingly in the past few years? I dont know, I'm no expert but keen to know what the experts do think, honestly.

By Lucia van Eck (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink

I know that volcanos and earthquakes are around for centuries, but I can not help thinking of these words "earthquakes in one place after another, when you see all these things, know the end is near" All these things being things which humans can not control and an intensity in activity not previously witnessed.Can it be we are witnessing a time in history which will be catastrophic and affect every nation on the planet? Whether a person is spiritual or not will not alter the facts.Can it be said that both earthquake and volcano activity has increased alarmingly in the past few years? I dont know, I'm no expert but keen to know what the experts do think, honestly.

By Lucia van Eck (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink