Debris-flow hazards at San Salvador, San Vicente, and San Miguel volcanoes, El Salvador

Special Paper of the Geological Society of America
By: , and 



Volcanic debris flows (lahars) in El Salvador pose a significant risk to tens of thousands of people as well as to property and important infrastructure. Major cities and nearly a third of the country's population are located near San Salvador, San Vicente, and San Miguel volcanoes. Debris flows traveling as little as 4 km from source at these volcanoes put hundreds to thousands of lives, property, and infrastructure at risk.

We used a statistically based model that relates debris-flow volume to cross-sectional and planimetric inundation areas to evaluate spatial patterns of inundation from a suite of debris flows ranging in volume from 100,000 m3 to as large as 100 million m3 and examined prehistoric deposits and a limited number of historical events at these volcanoes to estimate probable frequencies of recurrence. Our analyses show that zones of greatest debris-flow hazard generally are focused within 10 km of the summits of the volcanoes. For typical debris-flow velocities (3–10 m/s), these hazard areas can be inundated within a few minutes to a few tens of minutes after the onset of a debris flow. Our analyses of debris-flow recurrence at these volcanoes suggest that debris flows with volumes of 100,000 m3 to as large as 500,000 m3 have probable return periods broadly in the range of ∼10 to 100 yr. Debris flows having volumes less than 100,000 m3 probably recur more frequently, especially at San Miguel volcano.

Despite the limited extents of the hazard zones portrayed in our analyses, even the smallest debris flows could be devastating. Urban and agricultural expansions have encroached onto the flanks of the volcanoes, and debris-flow–hazard zones extend well into areas that are settled densely or used for agriculture. Therefore, people living, working, or recreating along channels that drain the volcanoes must learn to recognize potentially hazardous conditions, be aware of the extents of debris-flow–hazard zones, and be prepared to evacuate to safer ground when hazardous conditions develop.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Debris-flow hazards at San Salvador, San Vicente, and San Miguel volcanoes, El Salvador
Series title Special Paper of the Geological Society of America
DOI 10.1130/0-8137-2375-2.89
Volume 375
Year Published 2004
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Description 20 p.
Larger Work Title Natural Hazards in El Salvador
First page 89
Last page 108
Country San Salvador
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