Decade Volcano: Colima, Volcano of Fire

Scientists did not first notice Colima Volcano after the dramatic eruption of Mount St. Helens, in the US Pacific Northwest, on May 18, 1980.

They just saw this famous Mexican volcano with new eyes.

After all, Colima, which is sometimes called the “Fire Volcano” — Volcan de Fuego — has been earning an international reputation for five centuries.

It’s difficult to ignore. This particular fiery blast happened in January 2017.

One of the world’s first volcano observatories was set up at Colima around the same time as those at two other very active volcanoes: Kilauea and Vesuvius.

At Mount St. Helens, the biggest landslide in history (green) uncorked a VEI 5 eruption. (Image: T. R. Alpha/USGS via Wikimedia)

No, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens simply showed experts that the flanks of volcanoes sometimes fall down in a huge landslide.

It’s called a sector collapse if the summit goes, too, as happened at Mount St. Helens.

And if there is magma near the surface, BOOM!

After that disaster, geologists looked around and realized that such events are actually fairly common at volcanoes around the world. It just hadn’t happened in recorded history until 1980.

They also learned that the Colima Volcanic Complex — which includes some smaller structures as well as two extinct volcanoes: Cantaro and Nevado de Colima — has had more frequent flank and sector collapses than many other volcanoes.

Indeed, what we call “Colima” today is actually a young cone that rose out of the ruins of an older volcano, called Paleofuego.

Paleofuego lost its summit and southern flank several thousand years ago.

NASA/Landsat via Wikimedia, labeled by BJD.

The state capital, Colima City, almost 20 miles away, now sits on this debris.

That sector collapse was an even worse catastrophe than the one at Mount St. Helens because the landslide here dammed up two rivers, forming lakes.

Those natural dams soon gave way and the mother of all lahars then pounded its way across western Mexico and poured into the Pacific.

Lahars are cement-like mixtures of water and volcanic ash and other erupted material.

That’s a smaller, more typical lahar at Colima, caught on lahar monitoring cameras in 2015. Wait for it — what geologists call “the burst.”

See how this powerful little flow has reshaped the channel?

Imagine the effects of those great floods, thousands of years ago, upon the countryside!

“Colima Door” sculpture in the state capital, with Colima Volcano and the scarp of old Paleofuego in the background. (Image: Xcabrera, CC BY-SA 4.0)

More than a million people live near Colima, so there is a large population at risk — one of the Decade Volcano program criteria.

The volcano also erupts frequently and is accessible for field research. Records from the old observatory probably made Colima an attractive Decade Volcano candidate, too.

Finally, frequent small lahars like the one shown in the above video make Colima a “natural lab,” per Vazquez et al., to study this hazardous volcanic phenomenon.

All that Decade Volcano attention turned out to be a timely aid when activity at Colima began to intensify in 1998.

Colima is quiet at the moment, but it has had some 21st-century paroxysms and is now heavily monitored, often in real time, through ground methods and via satellites.

Research continues, while hazard maps are improved and updated as more information becomes available.

Government officials and emergency managers meet, plan, and occasionally order evacuations of the most vulnerable villages when the volcano’s activity picks up and pyroclastic flows become a threat.

But all anyone can do is wait and try to be as well prepared as possible for this dangerous volcano’s next move, whatever it may be.


19.514° N, 103.62° W, along the border of Jalisco and Colima states, Mexico. The GVP Volcano Number is 341040.

Nearby Population:

Per the Global Volcanism Program:

  • Within 5 km (3 miles): 76
  • Within 10 km (6 miles): 746
  • Within 30 km (19 miles): 303,490
  • Within 100 km (62 miles): 1,494,790

Current Status:

Aviation Code Yellow, with only a little seismicity, as well as gas emissions and fumarole activity reported in the June 5th bulletin. Experts do note that small to moderate explosive eruptions are possible in coming days and weeks.


  • Eruption styles: Colima is famous for Vulcanian eruptions (intermittent explosions), but it also produces thick, sticky lava flows. These usually stay in the crater to form domes that eventually blow up, causing pyroclastic flows among other things. In the past, this volcano has also had sub-Plinian to Plinian eruptions; some researchers suspect these might come in cycles of roughly 100 years but that hypothesis is still under debate.

    There have been at least eight debris avalanches at Colima Volcano in the last 30,000 years, per Cortes et al., with the last one about 2,500 years ago. Field evidence shows that these big landslides are often accompanied by an explosive eruption a la Mount St. Helens in 1980.

  • Hazards: Lahars — rain-mobilized ash and other erupted material — are the most common hazard here. (Varley) Besides destroying property and roads, they have taken out bridges and power-line pylons!

    Colima also produced large pyroclastic flows in 2004 and 2015, mainly from dome explosions (Varley). These were in the no-go zone that has been declared around Colima’s summit and harmed no one.

    Per Varley, in 2015 Colima had the most intense activity seen since 1913.

  • Biggest recorded event: Colima has had nine VEI 4 eruptions since the conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. The last one occurred in 1913 and affected a broad area in western and central Mexico. Locally, it was an economic blow, as well as very destructive, but the only fatalities listed in Brown et al. for 1913 are 13 people who perished in pyroclastic flows, some of which ran out nine miles from the summit. (Crummy et al.)
  • Most recent eruption: 2019.
  • Past history: See the GVP and sources listed below for details. Volcanologists are still trying to unravel Colima’s history, since geological records of past eruptions weather away quickly in a tropical climates. Lahars and debris avalanches contribute to the problem by burying and/or scouring off older deposits.


    Monitoring is through the University of Colima (Spanish).

    Webcams de Mexico has some real-time webcam views.

    Featured image: Eruption on December 17, 2016, by Dhatier via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.


    Note: Some are in Spanish and were translated using either a browser or Google Translate online.

    Alverado, I. 2018. Real-time monitoring of Popo and Colima Volcano. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    Bevilacqua, A.; Patra, A.; Bursik, M.; Pitman, E. B.; and others. 2019. Probabilistic forecasting of plausible debris flows from Nevado de Colima (México) using data from the Atenquique debris flow, 1955. Natural Hazard and Earth System Sciences, 19: 791-820.

    Brown, S.K.; Jenkins, S.F.; Sparks, R.S.J.; Odbert, H.; and Auker, M. R. 2017. Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification. Journal of Applied Volcanology, 6: 15.

    Capra, L.; Macıas, J. L.; Scott, K. M.; Abrams, M.; and Garduño-Monroy, V. H. 2002. Debris avalanches and debris flows transformed from collapses in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, Mexico–behavior, and implications for hazard assessment. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 113(1-2): 81-110.

    Capra, L.; Gavilanes-Ruiz, J. C.; Bonasia, R.; Saucedo-Giron, R.; and Sulpizio, R. 2015. Re-assessing volcanic hazard zonation of Volcán de Colima, México. Natural Hazards, 76(1): 41-61.

    Capra, L.; Gavilanes-Ruiz, J. C.; Varley, N.; and Borselli, L. 2019. Origin, behaviour and hazard of rain-triggered lahars at Volcán de Colima, in Volcán de Colima, Varley, N.; Connor, C. B.; and Komorowski, J. C., eds. (Abstract only) Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

    CENAPRED. 2019. Monitoring lahars at Colima Volcanoes. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    ___. 2019. Improved volcano surveillance in Mexico. June 3, 2020.

    Civil Protection, Jalisco State. 2020. Colima Volcano. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    Cortés, A.; Komorowski, J. C.; Macías, J. L.; Capra, L.; and Layer, P. W. 2019. Late Pleistocene-Holocene debris avalanche deposits, in Volcán de Colima, Varley, N.; Connor, C. B.; and Komorowski, J. C., eds. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

    Crummy, J. M.; Savov, I. P.; Navarro-Ochoa, C.; and Morgan, D. J. 2019. Holocene eruption history and magmatic evolution of the Colima Volcanic Complex, in Volcán de Colima, Varley, N.; Connor, C. B.; and Komorowski, J. C., eds. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. Retrieved from

    Global Volcanism Program.2019. Report on Colima (Mexico) (Venzke, E., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 44:8. Smithsonian Institution. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    Government of Mexico. 2020. Colima Volcano Action Plan. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    ___. 2018. A set of infographics PDFs — not current — about risks to surrounding areas:

    Newhall, C. 1996. IAVCEI/International Council of Scientific Union’s Decade Volcano projects: Reducing volcanic disaster. status report. US Geological Survey, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

    Norini, G.; Capra, L.; Groppelli, G.; Agliardi, F.; and others. 2010. Structural architecture of the Colima volcanic complex. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 115(B12).

    Photovolcanica. n.d. Colima. Last accessed June 4, 2020.

    University of Colima, University Center for Vulcanological Studies. n.d. Colima Volcano. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    Varley, N. R. 2019. Monitoring the recent activity: understanding a complex system, in Volcán de Colima, Varley, N.; Connor, C. B.; and Komorowski, J. C., eds. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

    Varley, N.; Connor, C. B.; and Komorowski, J. C. (Eds.). 2019. Preface. Volcán de Colima: Portrait of a Persistently Hazardous Volcano. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. Retrieved from

    Vázquez, R.; Capra, L.; Caballero, L.; Arámbula-Mendoza, R.; and Reyes-Dávila, G. 2014. The anatomy of a lahar: Deciphering the 15th September 2012 lahar at Volcán de Colima, Mexico. Journal of volcanology and geothermal research, 272:126-136.

    Wikipedia. 2020. Volcan de Colima.án_de_Colima Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    Wikipedia (Spanish). 2020. Volcan de Colima.án_de_Colima Last accessed June 3, 2020.

    ___. 2020. Nevado de Colima. Last accessed June 3, 2020.

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