Landslide and Lahar at Casita Volcano, Nicaragua

Intense Rainfall During Hurricane Mitch Triggers Deadly Landslide and Lahar at Casita Volcano, Nicaragua, on October 30, 1998

Pathway of landslide and lahar, Casita Volcano, Nicaragua

Photograph by K.M. Scott
on March 25, 1999

This view of Casita Volcano shows the pathway of the landslide and lahar that swept from volcano's south flank. The large boulders in the foreground originated from the upper flanks of the volcano; the largest boulders are about 3 m in diameter. The fast-moving lahar probably rolled or bounced the huge boulders along the base of the flow to their current location. Note that the lahar spread across the valley floor as it swept from the mouth of the canyon; trees in the center of the valley were left standing.

The side of Casita Volcano collapsed on October 30, 1998, the day of peak rainfall as Hurricane Mitch moved across Central America. As the sliding debris eroded older deposits from the volcano and incorporated additional water and wet sediment from along its path, it increased in size about 9 times. By the time it reached the base of the volcano, the thick slurry of rocks and water had also diluted to a watery flow (hyperconcentrated flow, 40-80% sediment by weight). The fast-moving mixture then eroded additional sediment to transform into a debris flow containing more than 80 percent sediment by weight.

The lahar killed more than 2,000 people as it swept over the towns of El Porvenir and Rolando Rodriguez. The only warning of the approaching lahar was a noise like helicopters or thunder, and ground tremor that caused some residents to think an earthquake was occurring. Within 2.5 to 3 minutes, the lahar overran the towns, killing almost everybody. This short time, and the gentle topography and the lack of high ground nearby would have prevented escape by all but a few even if the flow had been detected by either instruments or an observer.

The tragic landslide and lahar at Casita Volcano demonstrates that the cones of old inactive stratovolcanoes are prone to sudden collapse, especially during wet conditions. Many settlements in Nicaragua are so close to volcanoes that detection of flowing lahars and a warning in time for successful evacuation are unlikely. The key to avoiding disasters like Casita is keeping settlements out of lahar pathways.

The two towns destroyed below Casita (El Porvenir and Rolando Rodriquez) were "new towns" that were, unbeknownst to planners, placed in a prehistorically active lahar pathway. At least three large lahars have inundated the area in the past 8,300 radiocarbon years. Scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey are working with the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) to identify these pathways and the long-term frequency of lahars on the basis of prehistorical lahar deposits found in the area.

Map of Casita Volcano and path of the 1998 landslide and lahar


More images of Casita Volcano

Source of landslide high on south side of Casita Volcano, Nicaragua Close view of landslide scar and unconsolidated rock layers high on the south flank of Casita Volcano.

Scar of landslide on south side of Casita Volcano, Nicaragua View looking upslope at the failure site of the landslide on the south flank Casita Volcano.

Edge of the lahar from Casita Volcano, Nicaragua Standing on the outside edge of the lahar about 2.5 km from the base of Casita Volcano.

Large boulder deposited by the lahar from Casita Volcano, Nicaragua Large boulder (the "President Clinton" rock) carried by the lahar to the town of El Porvenir.

House left standing in El Porvenir by lahar from Casita Volcano, Nicaragua Mud line on the only remaining structure in El Porvenir shows height of the lahar.

Close view of tree abraded by lahar from Casita Volcano, Nicaragua Abrasions on standing tree from the debris carried by the lahar.

Thin lahar deposits downstream from Casita Volcano, Nicaragua Passage of the lahar is recorded by thin pebbly mud deposits around the base of this tree.

Camp for people displaced by lahar and Hurricane Mitch, Nicaragua Camp for survivors of Hurricane Mitch and lahar from Casita Volcano.

Other landslides and lahars