Bulletin Volcanologique

, 41:286

The exceptional magnitude and intensity of the Toba eruption, sumatra: An example of the use of deep-sea tephra layers as a geological tool


  • D. Ninkovich
    • Lamont-Doherty Geological ObservatoryColumbia University
  • R. S. J. Sparks
    • Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode Island
  • M. T. Ledbetter
    • Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode Island

DOI: 10.1007/BF02597228

Cite this article as:
Ninkovich, D., Sparks, R.S.J. & Ledbetter, M.T. Bull Volcanol (1978) 41: 286. doi:10.1007/BF02597228


The eruption of Toba (75,000 years BP), Sumatra, is the largest magnitude eruption documented from the Quaternary. The eruption produced the largest-known caldera the dimensions of which are 100 × 30 km and which is surrounded by rhyolitic ignimbrite covering an area of over 20,000 km2. The associated deep-sea tephra layer is found in piston cores in the north-eastern Indian Ocean covering a minimum area of 5 × 106 km2. We have investigated the thickness, grain size and texture of the Toba deep-sea tephra layer in order to demonstrate the use of deep-sea tephra layers as a volcanological tool. The exceptional magnitude and intensity of the Toba eruption is demonstrated by comparison of these data with the deep-sea tephra layers associated with the eruptions of the Campanian ignimbrite, Italy and of Santorini, Greece in Minoan time. The volume of ignimbrite and distal tephra fall deposit produced in the Toba eruption are comparable, a total of at least 1000 km3 of dense rhyolitic magma. In contrast the volume of dense magma produced by the Campanian and Santorini eruptions are approximately 70 and 13 km3 respectively. Thickness versus distance data on the three deep-sea tephra layers show that eruptions of smaller magnitude than Santorini are unlikely to be preserved as distinct tephra layers in most deep-sea cores. In proximal cores all three tephra layers show two distinct units: a lower coarse-grained unit and an upper fine-grained unit. We interpret the lower unit as a plinian deposit and the upper unit as a co-ignimbrite ash-fall deposit, indicating two major eruptive phases. The Toba tephra layer is coarser both in maximum and median grain size than the Campanian and Santorini layers at a given distance from source. These data are interpreted to indicate a very high cruption column, estimated to be at least 45 km. We have applied a method for estimating the duration of the Toba eruption from the style of graded-bedding in deep-sea tephra layers. Studies of two cores yield estimates of 9 and 14 days. The eruption column height and duration estimates both indicate an average volume discharge rate of approximately 106 m3/sec. The Toba eruption therefore was not only of exceptional magnitude, but also of exceptional intensity.

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© Intern. Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior 1978