Paleomagnetic constraints on eruption patterns at the Pacaya composite volcano, Guatemala

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Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences


Pacaya volcano is an active composite volcano located in the volcanic highlands of Guatemala about 40 km south of Guatemala City. Volcanism at Pacaya alternates between Strombolian and Vulcanian, and during the past five years there has been a marked increase in the violence of eruptions. The volcano is composed principally of basalt flows interbedded with thin scoria fall units, several pyroclastic surge beds, and at least one welded tuff. Between 400 and 2000 years BP the W-SW sector of the volcano collapsed producing a horseshoeshaped amphitheater (0.65 km3) and providing a window into the cone's infrastructure. Lava flows and tephra exposed in the amphitheater are more then 200 m thick and when combined with flows erupted recently represent between 30 and 40% of the cone's history. Pacaya is ideally suited for a paleomagnetic study into the timing and duration of eruption episodes at a large, composite volcano. We drilled 27 paleomagnetic sites (25 aa flows, 1 dike, and 1 welded tuff) from four lava-flow sequences with between 4 and 14 sites per sequence. The four sequences represent initial through historic activity at Pacaya. We resolved, what appear to be, 22 time-independent paleomagnetic sites by averaging together directions from successive sites where the sitemean directions were indistinguishable at the 95% level of confidence. However, mean-sequence directions of individual lava-flow sequences yielded unusually high Fisher precision parameters (k=44-224) and small circles of 63% confidence (a63=1.6-6.1°) suggesting as few as three or four time-independent sites were collected. This indicates that activity as Pacaya is strongly episodic and that episodes are characterized by voluminous outpouring of lavas. Modelling the data using Holocene PSV rates confirms this and shows that differences in within-sequence directions (6-11.5°) are consistent with emplacement of lava-flow sequences in less than 100 years to as many as 300 years. Relatively larger differences in directions (18-23°) between subjacent lava-flow sequences indicates that repose is at least 300-500 years and could be even longer.

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Bulletin of Volcanology