Lahars and Their Effects
Lahar is an Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and (or) river valleys. When moving, a lahar looks like a mass of wet concrete that carries rock debris ranging in size from clay to boulders more than 10 m in diameter. Lahars vary in size and speed. Small lahars less than a few meters wide and several centimeters deep may flow a few meters per second. Large lahars hundreds of meters wide and tens of meters deep can flow several tens of meters per second--much too fast for people to outrun.
As a lahar rushes downstream from a volcano, its size, speed, and the amount of water and rock debris it carries constantly change. The beginning surge of water and rock debris often erodes rocks and vegetation from the side of a volcano and along the river valley it enters. This initial flow can also incorporate water from melting snow and ice (if present) and the river it overruns. By eroding rock debris and incorporating additional water, lahars can easily grow to more than 10 times their initial size. But as a lahar moves farther away from a volcano, it will eventually begin to lose its heavy load of sediment and decrease in size.
Eruptions may trigger one or more lahars directly by quickly melting snow and ice on a volcano or ejecting water from a crater lake. More often, lahars are formed by intense rainfall during or after an eruption--rainwater can easily erode loose volcanic rock and soil on hillsides and in river valleys. Some of the largest lahars begin as landslides of saturated and hydrothermally altered rock on the flank of a volcano or adjacent hillslopes. Landslides are triggered by eruptions, earthquakes, precipitation, or the unceasing pull of gravity on the volcano.
Lahars almost always occur on or near stratovolcanoes because these volcanoes tend to erupt explosively and their tall, steep cones are either snow covered, topped with a crater lake, constructed of weakly consolidated rock debris that is easily eroded, or internally weakened by hot hyrothermal fluids. Lahars are also common from the snow- and ice-covered shield volcanoes in Iceland where eruptions of fluid basalt lava frequently occur beneath huge glaciers.
The scenarios listed below illustrate most of the mechanisms by which lahars are generated. For convenience, we've grouped the mechanisms according to whether a volcano is erupting, has erupted, or is quiet. Each mechanism is illustrated with one or more case studies.