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An integrated field-numerical approach to assess slope stability hazards at volcanoes: the example of Pacaya, Guatemala

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Pacaya is an active stratovolcano located 30 km south of Guatemala City, Guatemala. A large (0.65 km3) sector collapse of the volcano occurred 0.6–1.6 ka B.P., producing a debris avalanche that traveled 25 km SW of the edifice. The current cone has since rebuilt within the scarp of this ancestral collapse. The structural setting of the volcano, along with two recent smaller-volume collapses in 1962 and 2010, suggests gravitational instability of this volcano. To assess Pacaya’s stability and potential for another large lateral collapse of the active cone, standard engineering methodologies for studying non-volcanic slopes were used to examine the SW flank of the edifice. A geomechanical model was developed based on the physical–mechanical material properties of Pacaya’s intact rocks and rock mass characteristics found through field observations and laboratory tests. Slope stability was analyzed in several scenarios with the Limit Equilibrium Method (LEM) and Finite Element Method (FEM), including static conditions (i.e., under gravity forces only), and considering the application of magma pressure and seismic force as triggering mechanisms for slope failure. Results show that the edifice remains stable under gravity alone; however, a large-scale collapse could be triggered by reasonable ranges of magma pressure (≥7.7 MPa if constant along a dyke) or peak ground acceleration (≥460 cm/s2). Results also suggest that a layer of pyroclastics beneath the edifice could have controlled the ancestral sector collapse. Structural analysis shows that a transtensional stress regime is causing a NW–SE orientation of aligned features at the surface, and may be a controlling mechanism for the direction of a future collapse. FEM results are concordant with those from LEM and reveal that maximum shear strain patterns within the edifice may account for long lava flows erupted from lower vent elevations.

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This study was performed in the framework of the USA-Italy-France Atlantis INVOGE (International Geologic Masters in Volcanology and Geotechniques) project, and under the umbrella of the International Lithosphere Program–Task Force II. Additionally, this material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under PIRE Grant No. 0530109 and the Michigan Space Grant Consortium. Thank you to Patrick Manzoni for support in the field and laboratory. Special thanks to Sarah Fagents, Lee Siebert, and an anonymous reviewer for their help in improving this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Lauren N. Schaefer.

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Editorial responsibility: S. A. Fagents

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Schaefer, L.N., Oommen, T., Corazzato, C. et al. An integrated field-numerical approach to assess slope stability hazards at volcanoes: the example of Pacaya, Guatemala. Bull Volcanol 75, 720 (2013).

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  • Volcanic slope stability
  • Limit Equilibrium Method
  • Finite Element Method
  • Pacaya volcano