The Kuwae (Vanuatu) eruption of AD 1452: potential magnitude and volatile release

Witter, J.B. and Self, S. (2007). The Kuwae (Vanuatu) eruption of AD 1452: potential magnitude and volatile release. Bulletin of Volcanology, 69(3) pp. 301–318.



Sometime during AD 1452, according to new evidence, a large-magnitude, initially phreatomagmatic eruption, destroyed the island of Kuwae (16.83°S, 168.54°E), located in the present-day Republic of Vanuatu. It created a 12×6-km submarine caldera composed of two adjacent basins. Based on estimates of caldera volume, between 30 and 60 km3 DRE of dacite magma was ejected as pyroclastic flow and fall deposits during this event. Annual layers of ice dating from the period AD 1450–1460 contain acidity peaks representing fallout of sulfuric acid onto both the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. These acidity peaks have been attributed by others to the sedimentation of H2SO4 aerosols that originated from sulfur degassing during the Kuwae eruption. Improved dating techniques and new data from nineteen ice cores reveal a single acidity peak attributed to Kuwae lasting from 1453 to 1457. In this study, we present new electron microprobe analyses of the S, Cl, and F contents of matrix glasses and glass inclusions in phenocrysts from tephra ejected during the Kuwae eruption. We establish that the Kuwae event did indeed yield a large release of sulfur gases. From our glass inclusion data and analysis, we calculate that the total atmospheric aerosol loading from the 1452 Kuwae eruption was ≫100 Tg H2SO4. Much of the volatile mass released during the eruption was probably contained in a separate, volatile-rich, fluid phase within the pre-eruptive Kuwae magma body. Comparing the volatile release of the Kuwae eruption with other large-magnitude eruptions, places Kuwae as the greatest sulfuric acid aerosol producer in the last seven centuries, larger even than sulfur emissions from the eruption of Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815, and possibly Laki (Iceland) in 1783. The severe and unusual climatic effects reported in the mid- to late-1450s were likely caused by the Kuwae eruption.

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