Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 73, Issue 9, pp 1259–1277 | Cite as

Mafic Plinian volcanism and ignimbrite emplacement at Tofua volcano, Tonga

  • J. T. Caulfield
  • S. J. Cronin
  • S. P. Turner
  • L. B. Cooper
Research Article


Tofua Island is the largest emergent mafic volcano within the Tofua arc, Tonga, southwest Pacific. The volcano is dominated by a distinctive caldera averaging 4 km in diameter, containing a freshwater lake in the south and east. The latest paroxysmal (VEI 5–6) explosive volcanism includes two phases of activity, each emplacing a high-grade ignimbrite. The products are basaltic andesites with between 52 wt.% and 57 wt.% SiO2. The first and largest eruption caused the inward collapse of a stratovolcano and produced the ‘Tofua’ ignimbrite and a sub-circular caldera located slightly northwest of the island’s centre. This ignimbrite was deposited in a radial fashion over the entire island, with associated Plinian fall deposits up to 0.5 m thick on islands >40 km away. Common sub-rounded and frequently cauliform scoria bombs throughout the ignimbrite attest to a small degree of marginal magma–water interaction. The common intense welding of the coarse-grained eruptive products, however, suggests that the majority of the erupted magma was hot, water-undersaturated and supplied at high rates with moderately low fragmentation efficiency and low levels of interaction with external water. We propose that the development of a water-saturated dacite body at shallow (<6 km) depth resulted in failure of the chamber roof to cause sudden evacuation of material, producing a Plinian eruption column. Following a brief period of quiescence, large-scale faulting in the southeast of the island produced a second explosive phase believed to result from recharge of a chemically distinct magma depleted in incompatible elements. This similar, but smaller eruption, emplaced the ‘Hokula’ Ignimbrite sheet in the northeast of the island. A maximum total volume of 8 km3 of juvenile material was erupted by these events. The main eruption column is estimated to have reached a height of ∼12 km, and to have produced a major atmospheric injection of gas, and tephra recorded in the widespread series of fall deposits found on coral islands 40–80 km to the east (in the direction of regional upper-tropospheric winds). Radiocarbon dating of charcoal below the Tofua ignimbrite and organic material below the related fall units imply this eruption sequence occurred post 1,000 years BP. We estimate an eruption magnitude of 2.24 × 1013 kg, sulphur release of 12 Tg and tentatively assign this eruption to the AD 1030 volcanic sulphate spike recorded in Antarctic ice sheet records.


Tofua Mafic Plinian Tonga High-grade Ignimbrite Caldera 



JTC wishes to thank Kelepi Mafi and the Tongan Survey for sampling permission and logistical assistance, Graham Smith for invaluable help with fieldwork and the crew aboard the yacht Bliss for essential coastal sampling and photography during the field season. Oded Navon is thanked for helpful discussion and editorial comments. Detailed and constructive reviews provided by Armin Freundt, Jacopo Tacceucci and James White helped greatly in improving the clarity and scope of the manuscript. ST acknowledges the support of an ARC Federation Fellowship. SJC acknowledges the support of FRST Contract MAUX0401 “Learning to live with volcanic risk”. The analytical data were obtained using instrumentation funded by DEST Systemic Infrastructure Grants, ARC LIEF, NCRIS, industry partners and Macquarie University. This is contribution 719 from the Australian Research Council National Key Centre for the Geochemical Evolution and Metallogeny of Continents (


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. T. Caulfield
    • 1
  • S. J. Cronin
    • 2
  • S. P. Turner
    • 1
  • L. B. Cooper
    • 3
  1. 1.GEMOC National Key Centre, Dept. of Earth and Planetary SciencesMacquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Institute of Natural ResourcesMassey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand
  3. 3.Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology, ETHZurichSwitzerland

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