Watch out for the quiet ones.
They always get overlooked until internal pressures reach the breaking point and there is an explosion.
For instance, everyone in 1902 Guatemala knew that Santa Maria, seventy miles west of the nation’s capital, was a volcano. Its tall, pointy shape showed that.
But Santa Maria slept through the conquistador era and probably had been dormant for many centuries before that.
Life around it was pretty good as the 20th century dawned.
- Local natives climbed more than 12,000 feet to conduct Mayan ceremonies at the summit.
- Small farms and plantations of coffee, cardamom, and other specialty crops thrived on Santa Maria’s fertile, undisturbed slopes.
- Sleepy little villages were scattered around the volcano’s feet, while beautiful colonial-era architecture lined the streets of Quetzaltenango — the departmental capital — just seven miles north of the volcano.
Guatemalans have always lived with more active volcanoes than most people do. (Johrendt) They had other fire mountains to worry about.
And earthquakes were a big concern, too, that year. A series of major sismos, affecting all of western Guatemala, had started in January, 1902.
The worst one, on April 19th, was centered underneath Santa Maria. (Williams and Self)
Hundreds of people died when this M7.5 shock hit at around 8:30 that evening, collapsing many buildings and causing other structural damage in Quetzaltenango and other departments.
By autumn, more than forty quakes were happening each month. (Photovolcanica)
But nobody connected these troubles with the volcano.
Then, at around 5 p.m. on Friday, October 24th, while misty weather shrouded Santa Maria, villagers in San Felipe heard what sounded to them like a huge waterfall or an exploding industrial boiler. Farther north, residents of Quetzaltenango saw dark clouds and thought a storm was upon them until sandy pumice and ash began to fall from the sky.
By 8 p.m., the mist was gone, and Santa Maria’s lightning-studded eruption column was visible, rising above its southern flank.
This was bad enough, but the eruption then intensified overnight. Williams and Self report that the volcano was in plinian mode for 18 to 20 hours.
A ship captain off the nearby Pacific coast measured Santa Maria’s column at some point during this phase and found it to be over 17 miles high!
The worst was over by Sunday evening, October 26, though Santa Maria continued to rumble and sputter until mid-November.
It turned out to be the 20th century’s second largest eruption, a VEI 6 blast surpassed only by Novarupta/Katmai in 1912.
But Novarupta and Katmai rampaged over the Alaskan wilderness, inconveniencing modern society only with heavy ashfall on Kodiak Island.
Santa Maria erupted in a densely populated region.
It’s impossible to get consistent death toll figures. Thousands perished, certainly. The only documentation I can find lists either 2,455 direct deaths/2,000 from disease (Brown et al.) or 2,000-3,000 directly/5,000 to 10,000 from disease (Oppenheimer).
If correct, Oppenheimer’s totals make this the tenth most deadly eruption on record.
But this 1902 eruption isn’t the only reason why Santa Maria is on the Decade Volcano list.
The volcano had another surprise in store.
While the devastated region slowly recovered, Santa Maria had low-level eruptions between 1903 and 1913.
These occurred on the east end of the half-mile-wide, thousand-foot-deep hole that the 1902 eruption had blasted out of the southwest flank.
Then, on June 22, 1922, the southwest flank opened up again and a lava dome started piling up, then another, yet another, and finally the most recent one: Caliente, which is about 700 feet wide today and topped with a slow-moving lava flow. Its summit is about 8,200 feet above sea level.
The whole complex is called Santiaguito or the Santiaguito Volcano, though it is still a part of Santa Maria. Indeed, petrology shows that this lava is almost identical to what Santa Maria erupted with great force in 1902.
Each dome can have more than one vent, and the
youngest older domes are to the east. From 1972 to 1986, there was also activity at the dome just west east of Caliente, but now Caliente is on its own, without any sign of slowing down.
In two years, this ongoing eruption will be a century old!
Volcanologists as well as tourists love the fact that you can look down on Caliente’s vent from the summit of Santa Maria, about 4,000 feet higher.
This change in activity and extended period of activity also makes Santa Maria a Decade Volcano, as do the variety of hazards here and need for close monitoring.
And Santiaguito, like its parent, is a threat to many people.
The sort of lava that can build domes is also the type to suddenly break off in chunks that quickly turn into a pyroclastic flow.
As the video up above shows, these happen at Santiaguito. So do lava flows, lahars (volcanic mud flows), explosions with their accompanying hazards, and toxic gas emissions.
The most deadly pyroclastic flow here happened in 1929, when the dome partially collapsed while thousands of people were on the mountain, attending a religious festival. Again the toll is uncertain, but it appears that at least 3,000 people died that day. (Ball, 2010)
Volcan Santa Maria does not mess around.
Mariano Valverde, from Quetzaltenango, was Guatemala’s “waltz king” and had a successful US recording career during the early 20th century. This waltz — “Moon Night Among Ruins” — has special meaning for Guatemalans. Valverde’s mom died in the April 19, 1902, earthquake; some say he wrote this waltz for that, while others point to another quake in 1917. It’s included here because I hear in it the capacity for great sorrow, hope, and courage that is required of those who live near Santa Maria.
14.757° N, 91.552° W, in Quetzaltenango Department, southwest Guatemala. The GVP Volcano Number is 342030.
Per the Global Volcanism Program:
- Within 5 km (3 miles): 8,675
- Within 10 km (6 miles): 119,462
- Within 30 km (19 miles): 1,259,600
- Within 100 km (62 miles): 6,197,420
I could not find an alert level or aviation code. Here is the July 9th bulletin.
- Eruption styles: See above: mainly explosive “gray lava” eruptions, dome building, and thick lava flows that don’t go very far
- Biggest recorded event: 1902, VEI 6.
- Most recent eruption: Santiaguito, 1922 to present, VEI 3.
- Past history: See the GVP, but there isn’t anything we haven’t already covered. Santa Maria came to life very recently. Per Michigan Tech, the volcano is about 30,000 years old. They suggest its impressive cone was built in just 5,000 years. Then eruptions slowed down and, except for some small lava flows from flank vents, Santa Maria was probably quiet for 25,000 years –until October 24, 1902. It has been active almost constantly since then.
The National Institute of Seismology, Volcanoligy, Meteorology, and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH).
Here are the weekly volcano bulletins.
Washington VAAC (if any messages have been issued in the last 15 days)
Featured image: Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock
Some of these are in Spanish and were translated with browser or Google Translate online.
Aragon, M. 2013. When day turned into night. Revista Estudios Digital, No. 1, Guatemala School of History, USAC. https://web.archive.org/web/20141108040852/http://sitios.usac.edu.gt/revistahistoria/index.php?id=60
Ball, J. 2010. Looking backward: Past eruptions at Volcan Santa Maria. https://blogs.agu.org/magmacumlaude/2010/03/15/looking-backward-past-eruptions-at-volcan-santa-maria/ Last accessed July 9, 2020.
___. 2012. October 25, 1902: Santa Maria erupts. https://blogs.agu.org/magmacumlaude/2012/10/26/october-24-1902-santa-maria-erupts/ Last accessed July 9, 2020.
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.
Global Volcanism Program, 2020. Report on Santa Maria (Guatemala). In: Sennert, S K (ed.), Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, 24 June-30 June 2020. Smithsonian Institution and US Geological Survey. https://volcano.si.edu/showreport.cfm?doi=GVP.WVAR20200624-342030
Lamb, O. D.; Lamur, A.; Díaz-Moreno, A.; De Angelis, S.; and others. 2019. Disruption of long-term effusive-explosive activity at Santiaguito, Guatemala. Frontiers in Earth Science, 6: 253.
Michigan Tech (MTU). n. d. Santa Maria, Decade Volcano. http://www.geo.mtu.edu/volcanoes/santamaria/decade.html
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 https://web.archive.org/web/20041115133227/http://www.iavcei.org/decade.htm
Oppenheimer, C. 2011. Table 2.2, in Eruptions That Shook the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qW1UNwhuhnUC
Oregon State University Volcano World. n.d. Santa Maria. http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/santa-maria Last accessed July 9, 2020.
Photovolcanica. n.d. Santiaguito/Santa Maria Volcano. http://www.photovolcanica.com/VolcanoInfo/Santiaguito/Santiaguito.html Last accessed July 9, 2020.
Prens Libre. 2016. Night noon among ruins, a waltz that fills Guatemalans with nostalgia. https://www.prensalibre.com/vida/escenario/marimba-noche-de-luna-entre-ruinas-nostalgia-guatemala/ Last accessed July 9, 2020.
Rose, W. I. 1972. Notes on the 1902 eruption of Santa Maria volcano, Guatemala. Bulletin Volcanologique, 36(1): 29-45. Abstract only.
Rose, W. I. 1972. Santiaguito volcanic dome, Guatemala. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 83(5): 1413-1434.
Volcano Discovery. 2020. Santa Maria. https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/guatemala.html Last accessed July 9, 2020.
___. 2020. Santiaguito. https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/santiaguito.html Last accessed July 9, 2020.
Wikipedia. 2020. Santa Maria Volcano. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_María_(volcano) Last accessed July 9, 2020.
Wikipedia (Spanish). 2020. 1902 Guatemala earthquake. https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terremoto_de_Guatemala_de_1902 Last accessed July 9, 2020.
___. 2020. Volcan Santa Maria. https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcán_Santa_María Last accessed July 9, 2020.
___. 2020. Volcan Santiaguito. https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcán_Santiaguito Last accessed July 9, 2020.
Williams, S. N., and Self, S. 1983. The October 1902 plinian eruption of Santa Maria volcano, Guatemala. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 16(1-2): 33-56. Abstract only.
Zorn, E. U.; Walter, T. R.; Johnson, J. B.; and Mania, R. 2020. UAS-based tracking of the Santiaguito Lava Dome, Guatemala. Scientific Reports, 10(1): 1-13 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-65386-2