Video of the Week: Mexico’s Popocatépetl Volcano Explodes

Popocatépetl, Mexico’s most active and unruly volcano, is undergoing a bout of acid reflux. Mexico’s National Center for Disaster Prevention (CENAPRED) recorded the fiery explosion that initiated the volcano’s current gassy episode on their live webcam

The eruption launched plumes of ash and smoke 20,000 feet into the air and could be seen from space. No one was injured, although authorities are still warning people to stay away from the grumbling behemoth because of possible falling fragments and ash. The volcano is located approximately 40 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Popocatépetl, otherwise known as “El Popo” by locals, is over 17,000 feet high and is particularly grumpy. It erupted as recently as last summer—when it burst twice. It has a collection of small glaciers that have managed to survive its cranky behavior so far, although some have been hit by the recent volcanic activity. 

In the video, all is calm until Popocatépetl spontaneously belches out a fire ball that showers its sides with glowing red shards,followed by a thick, constant flowing stream of black smoke and ash that the volcano spews into the sky for many minutes.

Popocatépetl is a stratovolcano––tall and conical, with very steep sloping sides, and periodically erupts with fiery explosions and thick pyroclastic flows. These slow moving flows cool and harden quickly on a stratovolcano’s sides, which help maintain its cone-shaped profile. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) put up a satellite video clip on their twitter that also captured the eruption from space.

CENAPRED has the current warning level set to “Yellow Phase 2” which means there is no imminent danger, but that people should be wary and keep a distance of approximately 7.5 miles from the volcano. CENAPRED has also counted 248 “exhalations” of water vapor, gas—including sulfur dioxide—and ash since the explosion, and lists some pyroclastic activity, ash fall, and explosive activity of “low to intermediate level” as possible near term scenarios.

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Lahars Increase Stress-Tolerant Vegetation on Explosive Popocatépetl

Popocatépetl, or Smoking Mountain in the Aztec language, is an active stratovolcano, situated in central Mexico. Stratovolcanoes are steep, sloping volcanoes, characterized by their powerful eruptions and thick, slow-moving lava flow.

Mexico City with Popocatépetl hiding in the clouds (Source: Giovanni Paccaloni, Flickr)

At 8:26 am on March 6, Mexican authorities reported an explosion on Popocatépetl, according to the Mexico Daily News, which created a colossal ash plume reaching almost 4,000 feet into the atmosphere. As the explosive activity continues, an ash advisory remains in effect.

Popocatépetl is located about 43 miles from Mexico City, which has a population of 21.2 million people. As a result of the eruption, residents south of Mexico City are advised to keep all windows closed, use damp cloths around their noses and mouths, and drive slow due to the magnitude of ash on the ground.

Research published in the Journal of Vegetation Science shows an increase in stress-tolerant, competitive vegetation due to lahar activity on Popocatépetl. Lahars are fast flowing, destructive mudflows, often caused by eruptions and very hot flows of ash, lava, and gas. Lahars may also occur due to heavy precipitation.

Popocatépetl’s summit crater featuring Ventorillo and Noroccidental Glaciers (Source: NASA)


Glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Popocatépetl, are more susceptible to lahar activity due to glacial melting that occurs during eruptions. Reaching up to 2,200 °F, lava will melt everything in its path, including ice. As a result, glacial water can mix with dirt and debris to form dangerous lahars, which can destroy nearby ecosystems. 




Research Findings on Popocatépetl

In the study, researchers affiliated with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México analyze the leaf traits of 67 vegetation species on the Huilóac gorge. The gorge is located on the eastern slope of the volcano. The research project incorporates a total of 9 years of data.

Some of the analyzed species include Stevia tomentosa (small flowers), Roldana lobata (large herbs), Fragaria mexicana (strawberries),  Villadia batesii (evergreen succulents), and Stipa mucronata (grass).

Popocatépetl Volcano with flowering vegetation and hills (Source: nic0704, Flickr)

Using CRS (Competitive, Stress-Tolerant, or Ruderal) cataloging, the collected species were assorted into one of three categories. Competitive species adapt to productive, undisturbed environments. Stress-Tolerant species adapt to disturbed, harsh environments. And ruderal species adapt to disturbed, nutrient-rich environments.

The results of the study show that short-living vegetation with effective seed dispersal thrives in this cruel ecosystem.

The researchers conclude that “the change from ruderal/competitive to stress-tolerant and competitive species with time suggests that the most recent lahar event played a major role in sorting species according to their tolerance for disturbances”.

Increase in stress-tolerant species, such as conifers and alpine grasses, show that lahar activities play a role in species sorting. As vegetation adapts to favor resilience, it will transform Popocatépetl’s landscape. 

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