Unzen, Japan

Unzen, Japan

Location: 32.75 N, 130.30 E
Elevation: 4,457, feet (1,359 m)


Unzen is a large complex volcano made of several adjacent and overlapping lava domes. The volcano covers much of the Shimabara Peninsula and is east of the city of Nagasaki. In 1792, collapse of the Mayu-yama lava dome created an avalanche and tsunami that killed an estimated 14,524 people. Most of the people were killed by the tsunami.

After the 1792 eruption Unzen was dormant for 198 years. Photograph copyrighted and provided by Steve O'Meara Volcano Watch International.


Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) image of Unzen taken January 26, 1995. The image shows an area 25.7 miles by 20.3 miles (41.5 kilometers by 32.8 kilometers) North is toward the upper left of the image. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

The 1990 eruption was preceded by a swam of earthquakes that began in November 1989. The earthquakes gradually migrated towards the summit of Unzen over time. Tremor was first noted four months before the first eruption.
A phreatic eruption on November 17, 1990, marked the onset of the most recent eruption of Unzen. Beginning in late January 1991 continuous tremor was noted beneath the volcano. The eruption resumed on February 12, 1991. It became stronger with time and the composition of the ash particles indicated that fresh magma was being erupted. A volcanic dome made of dacite lava began to grow on May 20, 1991. The dome continued to grow for four more years. Photograph copyrighted and provided by Steve O'Meara of Volcano Watch International.

During this time pyroclastic flows were frequently generated by the collapses of lava blocks from margins of the dome. During 1991-1994, approximately ten thousand pyroclastic flows were counted on Unzen.

The next three photos show the last nuee ardente erupted from Unzen during intense activity on June 3-4, 1991. Photographs by Mike Lyvers, June 4, 1991.




Unzen is out of the photo to the right. Scale is hard to appreciate in these photos. The second two photos are wide-angle. The pine forest in the middle ground was completely flattened by the eruption. Photographs by Mike Lyvers, June 4, 1991.

Landslides also generated large pyroclastic flows that traveled as far as 3.4 miles (5.5 km) from the dome. On June 3, 1991, one of these pyroclastic flows killed 43 people, including noted volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft and Harry Glicken.

The next four photos show a smaller pyroclastic flow descending Unzen, December 30, 1991.





Photographs by Mike Lyvers.


More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed by pyroclastic- and debris-flows by the summer of 1993. Debris flow frequently occurred during the rainy season. The number of evacuated people was approximately 12,000 in the summer of 1991. The number of evacuated people was reduced to 3,000 by the end of 1993. Photograph copyrighted and provided by Steve O'Meara of Volcano Watch International.


Photo courtesy of USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory.


Funnel cloud generated by heat from hot pyroclastic flow deposits after the eruption. This photo is looking down on an area (once a suburb) where 44 people died, June 3, 1991. Photograph by Mike Lyvers.

Generation of pyroclastic flows and major deformation of the dome had stopped in February 1995.

In mid-February 1996, Unzen generated several small block-and-ash flows. These flows were caused by collapse of part of the volcanic dome. The flows traveled about 0.6 mile (1 km) from their source. Cooling of the lava dome or seasonal temperature changes may have triggered the collapses.

Additional photos of Unzen by Mike Lyvers.

Additional Ground Images of Unzen

The Unzen Decade Volcano homepage has additional information and photographs.

Sources of Information:

The Unzen Decade Volcano homepage.

The February 1996 Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network.

Kuno, H., 1962, Part XI, Japan, Taiwan and Marianas: Catalogue of the active volcanoes of the world including solfatara fields, International Association of Volcanology, Rome, Italy, 332 p.

Simkin, T., and Siebert, L., 1994, Volcanoes of the World: Geoscience Press, Tucson, Arizona, 349 p.



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