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Planet Earth

Deadliest Eruption of 2018 Strikes Guatemala

Rocky PlanetBy Erik KlemettiJune 3, 2018 8:04 PM

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The world’s attention has been on Hawaii, but an explosive eruption today in Guatemala has now become the deadliest of the year. UPDATE 4:45 PM ET June 4At least 69 people have been killed and hundreds injured in an eruption that generated multiple pyroclastic flows and heavy ash fall across the area near Fuego, the Central American country’s most active volcano. Three hundred UPDATE: Over 3,000 people living near Fuego have been evacuated as a precaution for more pyroclastic flows. Emergency responders are trying to reach people injured by the eruption, UPDATE: but have been hampered by the weather and conditions.

What is a pyroclastic flow? It is a jumble of ash, chunks of volcanic rock, hot gases and air that move down the sides of a volcano at hundreds of kilometers per hour. They are also hot at over 500ºC, so they pretty much wipe out everything — building, trees, bridges, people — in their path. UPDATE: This eruption is NOT lava, as many of the current news articles are saying. There may be chunks of fresh lava in the flow, but this is a hot debris avalanche, not flowing molten rock.

There is some startling video taken of one of today’s pyroclastic flows as they reached a bridge – however, remember if you ever find yourself in a situation like this, DO NOT stick around to film it. Run/drive/ride away as fast as possible.

Today was the 27th anniversary of the death’s of Maurice and Katia Krafft and Harry Glicken at Unzen in Japan. The Kraffts were famed volcanic documentarians while Harry Glicken was a USGS volcanologist. A pyroclastic flow like what happened today at Fuego killed them as they tried to view it from a restricted zone.

Ash from the eruption fell as far as Guatemala City, 70 kilometers away. 

The plume from the eruption was seen clearly on a GOES satellite image, with the dark grey ash cloud punching through the white cloud deck. The VAAC advisory for the eruption says that the ash may have reached as high as 9-15 kilometers (30,000-50,000 feet), although the INSIVMEH report says the explosions reached 6 km (~20,000 feet). UPDATE: The NASA Earth Observatory released an image taken by Suomi NPP showing the Fuego plume as well.

Let’s also clear up a few things that may come up: (1) there is no connection between this eruption and the one going on at Kīlauea right now; (2) it is not odd to have multiple volcanoes erupting at the same time across the globe; (3) the eruptions at Fuego and Kīlauea are very different in their style — this means that people in Hawaii should not expect anything like this at Kīlauea.

Eruptions at Fuego can produce a wide range of products: lava flows, ash fall, mudflows, pyroclastic flows. This is typical for a volcano like Fuego, a stratovolcano in a subduction zone, where one plate is sliding under another. This is unlike Kīlauea, a shield volcano at a hotspot, where lava flows are the dominant product.

Hopefully, the death toll is stay low for this eruption of Fuego, but it is a reminder of how dangerous volcanic eruptions can be, especially when they erupt explosively.

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