Turrialba volcano's threat to the cities of the Central Valley of Costa Rica

Gerardo J. SOTO , Raúl MORA , Mauricio MORA , Rafael BARQUERO , Waldo TAYLOR (1, 3) (1, 2, 3) (3, 4) (3, 4) Alberto VARGAS , Guillermo E. ALVARADO , Carlos RAMÍREZ , Gino GONZÁLEZ , (2, 4) (1) (1) Rolando MORA , Claudio PANIAGUA , José F. FERNÁNDEZ
(1, 2, 3) (3, 4) (2, 3) (1, 3) (1, 3)


(1) Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, (2) Escuela Centroamericana de Geología, Universidad de Costa Rica, (3) Red Sismológica Nacional, (4) Centro de Investigaciones en Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica

Turrialba volcano lies on the easternmost edge of the Central Volcanic Range of Costa Rica, <30 km away from the western Central Valley (~2.1 million inhabitants in 2010). Since the winds mainly blow from the Caribbean into mainland (E-W), and Central Valley is downwind from Turrialba, this poses a potential major threat to cities in there. Six powerful eruptions have taken place from Turrialba during the last 3400 years, and isopachs show that ashfall mainly affected the western Central Valley (where the present cities of San José, Heredia and Alajuela lie) and lesser, the eastern Central Valley (where Cartago is).

Barva V.


Turrialba V.
Western Central Valley

Irazú V.


10 km

Turialba volcano and the Central Valley of Costa Rica.The ellipsoidal contour is the 10-cm isopach of the plinian-subplinian eruption that occurred aprox. in 40 A.D (Reagan et al., 2006). The other two contours mark the possible limits of tephra fall during the last 3400 years. Prevailing winds blow to the W-SW. Higher winds blow to the NE.

Above: Intense fumarolic activity, drawn by Thomas Francis Meagher in 1858 (Harper´s New Monthly Magazine, 1860). Below: drawing by geologist Karl von Seebach in 1865, during eruption.

Distribution of ashes between September 1864 and February 1866, drawn according to the accounts contained in González (1910).

5 km

Tectonic swarms with epicenters along the main tectonic feature (a SW-trending zone with craters, faults, pyroclastic cones and fumaroles) have been recorded at least since 1982.

Location of main faults around the summit of Turrialba volcano (in red, from Soto, 1988; and Linkimer, 2003), and areas of seismicity since April 2007.
Epicenters June 2007-late 2009



564 224


Epicenters Mayl 2007 Epicenters mid-late April 2007 Epicenters early-mid April 2007 New fracture with steaming in 2007

Aerial photograph and location of main seismicity in the surroundings of Turrialba volcano since 1982.


2 km

Areas affected by acid rain
Southwestern crater Area with frequent acid rain (pH<5.6) Area with occasional acid rain (pH<5.6)

May 17, 2009. Photo by A. Sanabria from 20 SW of the volcano


Seismicity 1992-1996 EQ swarm Sept. 1982 EQs 1991

A restless stage initiated in 1995 and particularly since 2007, when wider fumarolic areas (similar to those observed in the 1850s-60s, see above), escalating temperatures (T=200-300ºC) in them, and seismicity around the southwestern crater have appeared. Resulting acid rain (pH<5) has 2 remarkably affected ~50 km on the western flank.

Aerial view, Dec. 26, 2009


Distribution of ashes, January 5-6, 2010

On January 5-6, 2010, lithic ash was erupted due to strong fumarolic-phreatic activity from a small newly-opened fumarolic vent (T>500ºC). The very fine ashes distributed in well accordance to previous expectations, to southwest and west, reaching the capital, San José (35 km away).
Microphotography of the lithic ashes erupted on 01/05/2010 (Courtesy of Research Center in Microscopic Structures).





5 km

Turrialba Volcano emits a translucent plume of volcanic gases in this natural-color satellite image from January 21, 2010. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided by the NASA EO-1 team. Caption by Robert Simmon. Available at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/ imagerecords/42000/42425/turrialba_ali_ 2010021_lrg.jpg. New vent opened during the eruption in early January 2010. Oblique aerial view of the craters of Turrialba, with fumaroles from the SW crater and the new vent.


Time (days)

Different views of the exhalative (intense fumarolic) activity of the volcano. • From the northeast (far left). • From the southwest (upper center) • From the west (30 km away, lower) showing Irazú volcano with clouds in the foreground and Turrialba in the background. Upper right is the RSAM from the CIMA seismic station on the summit, from November 2009 to February 2010. There is a sharp change previous to the phreaticfumarolic eruption in early January. First, a decrease and then an increase during the event. It is interpreted as a pressurization of the system due to fracture closure previous to the eruption.

Future eruptions (months to decades on), phreatic or magmatic, pose a major threat for farms and housing 5 km around the volcano and significant threats to agriculture, pastures and telecommunications on the western side of the volcano. The most likely “biggestscenario eruption” would affect up to 1.5 million people (see above on prehistorical distribution of ashes) and aerial transportation, because the main Costa Rican international airport lies on the ash dispersion trend (see figure above on 1864 ash dispersal).


GONZALEZ VIQUEZ, C., 1910: Temblores, terremotos, inundaciones y erupciones volcánicas en Costa Rica 1608-1910. - Tipografía de Avelino Alsina, 239 pp. LINKIMER, L., 2003: Geotectónica del extremo oriental del Cinturón Deformado del Centro de Costa Rica. - 103 pp. Universidad de Costa Rica [Tesis Licenciatura]. REAGAN, M., DUARTE, E., SOTO, G.J. & FERNANDEZ, E., 2006: The eruptive history of Turrialba volcano, Costa Rica, and potential hazards from future eruptions. - In: Rose, W.I., Bluth, G.J.S., Carr, M.J., Ewert, J.W., Patino, L.C. & Vallance, J.W. (Eds.): Volcanic hazards in Central America. Geological Society of America Special Paper 412: 235-257, doi: 10.1130/2006.2412(13). SOTO, G.J., 1988: Estructuras volcano-tectónicas del Volcán Turrialba, Costa Rica, América Central. - Actas V Congreso Geológico Chileno, Santiago, 8-12 de agosto de 1988, Tomo III: I 163-I 175.

Counts RSAM


E-mail: katomirodriguez@yahoo.com

220 216

Eastern Central Valley

Turrialba has had summit fumaroles at least since 1723 and a strombolianvulcanian eruption occurred in 1864-66, severely affecting a radius of 3 km around the volcano, and blowing ashes over the capital San José, and down to the Pacific coast, ~130 km away. Since then, fumarolic activity (T~90ºC) has been present.

Caribbean Sea


Turrialba volcano



A: Present Airport C: Cartago N: Nicoya P: Puntarenas J: San José R: San Ramón T: Turrialba

Pacific Ocean

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