Causes and mechanisms of the 2011–2012 El Hierro (Canary Islands) submarine eruption


Corresponding author: J. Marti, Group of Volcanology (GVB-CSIC), SIMGEO (UB-CSIC), Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera, Lluis Sole SAbaris s/n, 08028 Barcelona, Spain. (


[1] El Hierro eruption started on 10 October 2011 after an unrest episode that initiated on 17 July 2011. This is the first eruption in the Canary Islands that has been tracked in real time. Although being submarine and not directly observable, the data recorded allowed its reconstruction and to identify its causes and mechanisms. Seismicity, surface deformation, and petrological data indicate that a batch of basanitic magma coming from a reservoir located at a depth of about 25 km below the El Hierro Island was emplaced at shallower depth creating a new reservoir about 10–12 km above, where magma evolved until the initiation of the eruption. The characteristics of seismicity and surface deformation suggest that the necessary space to accumulate magma at this shallower position, which coincides with the crust/mantle boundary beneath El Hierro, was created in about 2 months by elastic deformation and magma-driven fracturing of the crust. After this first intrusion episode, part of the magma started to migrate laterally toward the SE for nearly 20 km, always keeping the same depth and following a path apparently controlled by stress barriers created by tectonic and rheological contrasts in the upper lithosphere. This lateral migration of magma ended with a submarine eruption at about 5 km offshore from the southern corner of El Hierro Island. The total seismic energy released during the unrest episode was of 8.1 × 1011 J, and the total uplift previous to the onset of the eruption was of 40 mm. Combining geological, geophysical, and petrological data and numerical modeling, we propose a volcanological model of the causes and mechanisms of El Hierro eruption that shows how the stress distribution in the crust beneath El Hierro, which was influenced by rheological contrasts, tectonic stresses, and gravitational loading, controlled the movement and eruption of magma. We also discuss the implications of this model in terms of eruption forecast in the Canary Islands.