14 comments on “Was Kuwae a killer? Maybe, but we need to know more

  1. This is a very good article. The 1452 event has an ice core record so it must have been a significant eruption. There is also an effect on the climate which only happens after major events. But was it Kuwae? There was a major tsunami in New Zealand around the same time, with evidence found as far as the Pitcairn island, but ony south and east of Vanuatu. James Goff has argued that Polynesia overall suffered a cultural decline, which ties in with a major eruption. Quoting him: “Rapid, near-simultaneous collapse of regional open-sea voyaging in Polynesia in the 15th century, coinciding with marked cultural changes – the movement inland of settlements, depletion of resources, increase in warfare, and the increasing importance of chiefdoms”. And there was a second eruption around 6 years later, as yet unidentified but even larger. I agree that the jury is still out as to what exactly happened, and where. Another culprit may yet be found. But Kuwae is still the most plausible site.


    • Howdy Albert –

      Many thanks for the comments. Looking into this led to serious head scratching about the event. Erik’s article mentioned a second ice core spike dated some six years after the 1452 event, leading him to believe there was another large eruption. Cause of that spike is as yet unidentified. And if the Kuwae eruption was not large enough to create either of the ice core spikes (see next paragraph), there was a third eruption around the same time.

      The thing that really struck me about Kuwae was the lack of massive (thick) pyroclastic deposits on Epi and Tongoa. If you erupt over 30 km3 of stuff, more than a little of it should be left on the surrounding islands. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t create the tsunamis. Rather it means (at least to me) that it may not have put enough dust and gas into the upper atmosphere to create either ice core spike.

      If you look at the third image, there is a notional large caldera rim proposed by Garanger in 1972 SE of Tongoa. Appears that was not the actual caldera. How many more of these exist in Vanuatu?

      Finally, we know the slopes of the islands are unstable, so flank collapse as cause of the tsunamis are not ruled out.

      There was a paper or two on Kuwae published in 2013 that I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on rumored to identify Kuwae as the definitive cause of the eruption.

      It’s a heck of a mystery that will make a great detective story. Figuring it all out will be quite an interesting journey. Do not disagree that Kuwae is the likely cause, but there are some rather large holes in making that connection (at least to me). Thanks again for taking the time to look in and comment. Cheers –


  2. Do you know what these 2013 papers were about? I can try to find them. There were recent papers which re-date Kuwae to 1458 (the larger eruption), with the 1452 event a different, weaker eruption which I think must have happened in the northern hemisphere (35-40 degrees N), based on the comparing the sulphate deposits in Greenland and Antartica.


    • Howdy Albert – My guess is that they attempt to tie Kuwae caldera formation conclusively to the 1452 event. In the interim, Granyia pointed me to a paper by Nemeth, a Hungarian Geologist who published a few papers on Kuwae in the 2000’s. His 2008 paper (in Hungarian) suggests that the fabled eruption of the caldera was in the 19th Century. I have a poor translation. Paper can be found at the following link. Cheers –



  3. Just a mention; Momotombo in Nicaragua has just had its first confirmed eruption since 1905.

    I haven’t had time to really go closely into the Kuwae “was it or wasn’t it?” question yet, but there doesn’t
    seem to be enough hard physical evidence there for a guilty verdict. Where are the thick pyroclastic flows on the two main islands, for one thing. The flows described in the 2007 paper don’t seem to be big enough. And we really need both stratigraphic sections on Epi Island AND submarine cores from the surrounding area, especially S-SE of Tongoa, the possible submarine caldera there looks like a better bet to me


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  5. Very interesting. I’m inherently skeptical of convenient coincidences i.e. we have tsunami matching up with oral traditions matching up with ice core and climate records of a big eruption…but something besides an eruption here could have caused the tsunami? Looking at the paleotsunami paper at the New Zealand civil defense link, those deposits on the north island of New Zealand – if they are indeed tsunami deposits – can only be created by an extremely powerful event. Lots of >20m deposits and even more 5-20m deposits, which are all minimum figures. And they’re on both sides of the island. Many must be from the same event, just statistically speaking. Stuff that big doesn’t happen that often.

    Can the fault lines cited as an alternative culprit actually produce that kind of wave? This is megatsunami territory, with historically observed large tsunami associated with Mag 9s.

    Pyroclastic material deposits should still be identifiable if submerged. I wonder if anyone has looked at the sea bed around the caldera.


    • Howdy PP – One of the papers suggested drilling and taking sample cores around the caldera. That has not been done yet to the best of my knowledge. The other culprit would be flank collapses of the islands, not just in Vanuatu but in other island chains. A pretty geologically complex part of the world. This will be a lot of fun to sort out. Cheers –


  6. Very very nice to see you guys continuing the tradition. Great article, wonderful read. I also think meteorite impact is the most likely explanation of the tsunamis, followed by megathrust earthquake, followed by volcanic eruption / flank collapse. AFAIK there are no recent seabed deposits indicating a major recent flank collapse along the Tongan/Kermadec arc. And I have not heard of any correlation of the Sandy Bay Tuff from Macauley Island with any tsunami deposits in NZ although it would be a great contender for it (100km^3 eruption not so far from NZ mainland)

    Is it possible that Kuwae is a trapdoor caldera and blasted everything eastwards? This might explain the lack of pf’s on land.


  7. I have always known that during the great Kuwae Eruption, all people on Tongoa, Ewose, Buninga, died. I have really yet to find to find out the evidence that points to the period of six years of constant rumbling that would be warning call for chiefs to evacuate people and there is no strong basis for an evacuation programme to take place because no one could have predicted the enormous destruction that was about to happen. Lastly the two sole survivors are ordinary people, from the island of Tongariki. Tarimas from Makira crown the male Matanaur etong. Evidence exist today.What ia the word for ” generation ” in Namakura, or Nakamanga


    • Howdy Mr. Ruben –

      You sound like either a local or someone with contact with locals. What are the historic stories and evidence of the eruption? Anything you can pass along would be most helpful. Cheers –


  8. I was born on Tongariki. The historic stories that i have heard refered to “NA RORR i herag aur”. Interestingly this is talking about a TSUNAMI. I have looked for physical evidence of such a disaster taking place as a result of an eruption, and i can easily conclude that there are physical evidences as well as evidences of the volcanic eruption. We need more study on the sites of old villages to find how the people reacted upon the eruption.


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