Gagxanul: The Unrecognized Volcano

Known as Gagxanul in the local language, Santa Maria, a volcano located in western Guatemala, erupted in 1902, in the third largest eruption of the 20th century. Classified as a VEI 6 eruption, Santa Maria had been dormant for at least 500 years before erupting in October of 1902.

Santa Maria 1902

Figure: Santa Maria eruption in October, 1902. Photo from Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902


In the months leading up to the eruption, in January 1902, seismic swarms were felt all over the region, including a large earthquake, M 7.5, in April. During this earthquake, around 2000 lives were lost, and several churches in the region were damaged.

Before the eruption in 1902, there had been no historical eruptions from Santa Maria, meaning the people living in the region did not recognize it as an active volcano and were not expecting an eruption. Furthermore, because they were not aware of the volcano's activity, they did not recognize the seismic activity as a forewarning of an impending eruption.

The eruption itself started around 5 pm on the 24th of October, and lasted 2 days, resulting in the deaths of over 5000 people.


Santa Maria 1902

Figure 2: Santa Maria's eruption in 1902 from a nearby village. Photo in public domain by Julio Yaquier.


It was recorded that the ash from the eruption reached as far as San Francisco and in early November, San Francisco rescued several survivors who had managed to escape on boats.

Following the eruption, several more lives were lost as a result of out break of malaria and food shortages. Subsequent rainfall in the region resulted in lahar flows forming, forcing the nearby towns to move their infrastructure, especially those living near the rivers.


Santa Maria now

Figure: Santa Maria now, in the background of the cities that have developed in the region. Photo by Kevin Revolinski / themadtraveleronline.com


Since 1902, Santa Maria has erupted a few more times, but scientists and volcanologists have now recognized the eruption warnings, and monitor any signs of activity. The eruptions at Santa Maria are now studied to understand the hazards and impacts of a possible future eruption in the region.


Check here for our page on details of Santa Maria.

Check here for an exciting account of a volcano hike up Santa Maria.