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Disappearance of a crater lake: implications for potential explosivity at Soufrière volcano, St Vincent, Lesser Antilles


Soufrière volcano in St Vincent, West Indies, is one of the most active volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean with at least six eruptions since 1718 AD, the latest of which occurred in 1979. Prior to the 1979 eruption, the active crater hosted deep-water lakes during periods of repose, which were always replenished within a few years after the eruptions. In 1979, the crater was filled with 108 m3 of fragmental material and, despite constant precipitation, has remained virtually dry ever since, with the exception of a small shallow pond. A resistivity survey was conducted in July 2006 to investigate groundwater occurrence in the crater. Results from the resistivity data inversion on several 2-D profiles show a shallow horizontal conductor across the crater floor, consistent with a water-saturated aquifer. They also show that the post-1979 pond, currently present in the crater lake is in fact an outcropping part of the groundwater water reservoir. The reservoir water table is ∼28 m above the pre-1979 lake level and reflects mass equilibrium in the system where constant seepage underground balances the meteoric recharge. We suggest that the groundwater body extends at depth to the bottom of the pre-1979 crater lake, either due to a significant structural discontinuity or because of a reduction of permeability at depth. The estimated maximum volume of water stored underground is 10–30 × 106 m3 and energy considerations indicate that 2.4–7.3 × 1010 kg of magma would potentially be sufficient to vaporise the whole groundwater body. This amount of magma represents only 13–41% of the mass erupted during the last eruption in 1979 which was the smallest of the past 3 eruptions (1902, 1971–72, 1979). Since explosive phreatic or phreatomagmatic eruptions at Soufrière seem to be linked to magma-water interaction within confined space, the results from this survey suggests that phreatic or phreatomagmatic activity is a distinct possibility during future magma intrusion in the summit area, despite the apparent disappearance of water in the summit crater.

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This research was supported through a Research and Publication Funds grant from the University of the West Indies (ref. CRP.3HI). We thank A Samuel (Soufrière Monitoring Unit) and F Springer (Forestry Dept.) from the Ministry of Land, Agriculture and Fisheries, St Vincent, W.I., for their assistance and support during fieldwork. We also thank J Hamilton for earlier input on the project, M-C. Guilhou and L Bardou for their help during the geophysical data acquisition campaign and M Loke for helpful discussions on restivity data inversion. Thanks also to R Persad and A Gopee, for providing GPS and photogrammetry data of Soufrière volcano. Finally, we are grateful to reviewers Bernd Zimanowski and Magnús T. Gudmundsson, and the Editor James White for their thorough and insightful comments which greatly helped improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nicolas Fournier.

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Editorial responsibility: J.D.L. White

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Fournier, N., Moreau, M. & Robertson, R. Disappearance of a crater lake: implications for potential explosivity at Soufrière volcano, St Vincent, Lesser Antilles. Bull Volcanol 73, 543–555 (2011).

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  • Crater lake
  • Phreatomagmatic
  • Resistivity
  • Magma
  • Groundwater
  • Soufrière volcano
  • St Vincent