Saturday 5 October 2019

Series of eruptions on Mount Popocatépetl.

Mount Popocatépetl, a stratovolcano (cone shaped volcano made up of layers of ash and lava) in the central part of Mexico, has undergone a sharp increase in eruptive activity this week, according to the Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres. The volcano erupted 14 times between midnight and 7.15 am local time on Wednesday (2 October 2019), once on Thursday and three times on Friday.  The Centro has issued a warning to the public not to approach the volcano, as there is thought to have been a significant build up of ash on its flanks, which could lead to lahars in the event of heavy rains, which are predicted in the area at this time of year.

An ash cloud over Mount Popocatépetl on 2 October 2019. Hilda Rios/EFE/EPA.

Lahars are ash-laden flash floods associated with volcanoes. They can be caused directly by volcanic eruptions, for example when hot lava encounters a glacial lake rapidly destroying an ice dam, but are also common in areas of high seasonal rainfall, where ash deposits from a volcano can build up during the dry season, creating dams on seasonal waterways, which temporarily halt the flow of water, then give way rapidly leading to dramatic flash floods.

Popocatépetl has been more or less constantly erupting since the mid 1990s, but most of the time this activity remains at a low level. Major eruptions on Popocatépetl are a cause for concern as the volcano is in a densely populated area, with 30 million people living within the potential hazard zone. The last major eruption, a Plinian (or Vesuvian) event in about 800 AD, triggered a series of pyroclastic flows and lahars that scoured the basins around the volcano.

 The location of Popocatépetl. Google Maps.

The volcanoes of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt (including Popocatépetl) are fuelled by the subduction of the Cocos Plate beneath the North American Plate along the Middle American Trench to the south of Mexico. As the subducting plate sinks into the Earth it is melted by the heat and pressure, and volatile minerals liquefy and rise through the overlying North American Plate as magma, fuelling Mexico's volcanoes. 

The subduction of the Cocos Plate beneath the North American Plate in Mexico, and how it leads to volcanoes and Earthquakes.

The Cocos Plate is thought to have formed about 23 million years ago, when the Farallon Plate, an ancient tectonic plate underlying the East Pacific, split in two, forming the Cocos Plate to the north and the Nazca Plate to the south. Then, roughly 10 million years ago, the northwesternmost part of the Cocos Plate split of to form the Rivera Plate, south of Beja California.

 The position of the Cocos, Nazca and Rivera Plates. MCEER/University at Buffalo.

In a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, in 2012, a team led by Igor Stubailo of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles, published a model of the subduction zone beneath Mexico using data from seismic monitoring stations belonging to the Mesoamerican Seismic Experiment, the Network of Autonomously Recording Seismographs, the USArray, Mapping the Rivera Subduction Zone and the Mexican Servicio Sismologico Nacional.
The seismic monitoring stations were able to monitor not just Earthquakes in Mexico, but also Earthquakes in other parts of the world, monitoring the rate at which compression waves from these quakes moved through the rocks beneath Mexico, and how the structure of the rocks altered the movement of these waves.
Based upon the results from these monitoring stations, Stubailo et al. came to the conclusion that the Cocos Plate was split into two beneath Mexico, and that the two plates are subducting at different angles, one steep and one shallow. Since the rate at which a plate melts reflects its depth within the Earth, the steeper angled plate melts much closer to the subduction zone than the shallower angled plate, splitting the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt into sections above the different segments of the Cocos Plate, and causing it to apparently curve away from the subduction zone.
 Top the new model of the Cocos Plate beneath Mexico, split into two sections (A & B) subducting at differing angles. (C) Represents the Rivera Plate, subducting at a steeper angle than either section of the Cocos Plate. The Split between the two has been named the Orozco Fracture Zone (OFZ) which is shown extended across the Cocos Plate; in theory this might in future split the Cocos Plate into two segments (though not on any human timescale). Bottom Left, the position of the segments on a map of Mexico. Darker area is the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, orange circles are volcanoes, brown triangles are seismic monitoring stations, yellow stars are major cities. Bottom Right, an alternative model showing the subducting plate twisted but not split. This did not fit the data. Stubailo et al. (2012).
Witness accounts of Earthquakes can help geologists to understand these events, and the structures that cause them. The international non-profit organisation Earthquake Report is interested in hearing from people who may have felt this event; if you felt this quake then you can report it to Earthquake Report here.
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