Colima Volcano

Colima Volcano is slowly waking up again, so here is its slightly edited chapter from my eBook “The Decade Volcanoes and Us.”

Scientists did not suddenly discover Colima Volcano after Mount St. Helens erupted dramatically on May 18, 1980.

They just saw this famous Mexican volcano — which is also called Fuego de Colima — with new eyes.

Colima has been drawing international attention for centuries.

One of the world’s first volcano observatories was set up here at around the same time as observatories at Hawaii’s Kilauea and at the Decade Volcano Vesuvius in Italy.


Most notably because:

  1. Fuego de Colima has erupted more than thirty times since the conquistador era. This means that early volcanologists had lots of historical data to study in their observatory.
  2. The volcano’s frequent activity also gave them a chance to monitor these violent events in real time.

    And, given the vast amounts of loose ash lying around after Colima’s eruptions and the heavy rainfall this region gets, this volcano has always been “a natural laboratory” for studying lahars — a technical name for volcanic mudflows.

    Lahars are a deadly and destructive hazard at many volcanoes. (Vazquez et al., link added)

By 1980, geoscientists thought they had a reasonably good basic understanding of Colima Volcano, although many questions remained.

But when the biggest landslide in history left a hummocky landscape spread out at the feet of what was left of Mount St. Helens, experts realized that they had seen this sort of thing before, all over the world. (Capra et al., 2002)

Now they knew what causes hummocky terrain, but they also faced the chilling knowledge that collapses like the one at Mount St. Helens are fairly common.

It just hadn’t been scientifically observed until the twentieth century.

They soon discovered that well-studied Colima Volcanic Complex (which includes, besides Colima, some smaller structures as well as two extinct volcanoes to the north) has very frequent St. Helens-style landslides — at least twelve times in the last 45,000 years! (Photovolcanica; Varley et al.)

What we call “Colima” today is a young cone that rose out of the ruins of the last collapse here, more than two thousand years ago.

Top, from NASA Earth Observatory. See the “Flank collapse caldera rim” note at the top? As large as Volcan de Colima is today (see lower image), it used to be much bigger!
Bottom, Jorge Murguia/Shutterstock.

As at Merapi in Indonesia, you can see a curved ridge around Fuego de Colima. This is the remnant of an older volcano.

Called Paleofuego, that volcano’s summit and southern flank slid away when it was about the same height as Colima is today (almost 13,000 feet above sea level). (Photovolcanica)

Colima City, a state capital and home to roughly 180,000 people, now sits on this debris.

All told, more than a million people live near this volcano, which straddles the border between Jalisco and Colima states.

That alone was an excellent reason to make Colima a Decade Volcano.

But there is another major hazard here: Fuego de Colima can be very violent.

It has had at least twenty-five Plinian-style eruptions over the last 30,000 years, per Crummy et al.

In recent times, they’ve been running once every hundred years or so, with less intense eruptions in between.

The last huge blast was in 1913. After that things were quieter, with lava flows and mild to moderate explosions.

But in 1991, Colima was rumbling again, and so volcanologists got to work.

At the end of the Decade Volcano program, Chris Newhall reported that they had developed new hazard maps for Colima. As well, the observatory was reorganized to improve communication among scientists and with the local community.

This proved to be a good thing. Starting in 1998, activity at Colima rose to levels not seen since 1913. (Varley)

This has continued intermittently ever since. Fortunately, the largest eruption thus far, while indeed ¡impresionante!, has not yet approached Plinian levels.

Fortunately for everyone, this is now one of the best monitored volcanoes in North America.

Government officials and emergency managers meet, plan for a 1913-sized event, and when Colima’s behavior calls for it, they evacuate the most vulnerable villages.

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, Mexico. The GVP Volcano Number is 341040.

Nearby Population:

Per the Global Volcanism Program website:

  • 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.


  • 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. 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.
  • 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.

  • Biggest recorded event: Fuego de 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. (Crummy et al.)
  • Most recent eruption: 2019.
  • Past history: See the GVP and sources listed in the references for details.


Colima Volcano is monitored through the University of Colima (Spanish). Here is a drone overflight they did on April 13th:

For the latest information, this Twitter feed (Spanish) is helpful.

Webcams de Mexico has real-time webcams viewing Colima from the:

The Washington Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) monitors Colima ash emissions.

Edited, April 16, 2021.

Featured image: Sara Hoffritz, distributed via Imaggeo, CC BY-SA 3.0.


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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