The Science Behind Popocatépetl’s Recent Eruption

By Dr Alfonsina Arriaga Jiménez, UNE Discovery

In this issue of the UNE Discovery newsletter, we will explore the fascinating world of volcanoes and dive into the recent eruption of Mexico’s iconic Popocatépetl.

Popocatépetl’s recent eruption and fumaroles, 2023. Photo by César Guzmán @celacanto80

The Popocatépetl is one of Mexico’s most renowned and picturesque volcanoes. Standing tall at 5,393 meters, this majestic stratovolcano is located in the country’s central part, near Puebla and Mexico City. Popocatépetl’s name means “Smoking Mountain” in the indigenous Nahuatl language, and it has a rich history dating back to ancient times.

In the past few weeks, Popocatépetl has caught the attention of scientists and locals due to an eruption event. An eruption occurs when pressure builds up inside the volcano, causing magma, gas, and other volcanic materials to be forcefully expelled from its vent.

Popocatépetl’s recent eruption and fumaroles, 2023. Photo by César Guzmán @celacanto80

Popocatépetl’s recent eruption has been a sight to behold, with billowing clouds of ash and smoke rising high into the sky. This eruption has significantly affected nearby communities, leading to the cancellation of flights to Mexico City as a safety precaution due to the potential hazards of volcanic ash. A large amount of volcanic ash fell in the state of Puebla, but there was no major damage. Local authorities have implemented evacuation plans, provided shelters, and offered regular updates and warnings to residents. Although it can be alarming, volcanic eruptions are a natural part of Earth’s geological activity, and scientists closely monitor them to ensure the safety of nearby communities (

View of Popocatépetl crater with fumaroles, 2021. Photo by Felipe Pérez @nomadaenpatineta

Volcanoes erupt due to a combination of factors related to the Earth’s internal dynamics. Deep beneath the Earth’s crust lies a region called the mantle, which is incredibly hot and partially molten. Over time, the movement of tectonic plates (large sections of the Earth’s crust) can cause cracks and weaknesses, allowing magma to rise to the surface. When the magma reaches the surface, it can explode outwards, creating a volcanic eruption. The eruption can release ash, gas, and pyroclastic flows (fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter). Volcanic eruptions can also produce lava, which flows out of the volcano and creates new land formations over time.

Scientists employ various monitoring techniques to ensure the safety of people living near active volcanoes like Popocatépetl. They use seismometers to detect seismic activity, gas sensors to measure volcanic gases, and satellites to observe changes in the volcano’s shape and temperature. These tools help scientists anticipate eruptions and provide timely warnings to nearby communities, allowing them to evacuate if necessary.

While volcanic eruptions can be dangerous, they remind us of nature’s immense power and beauty. Volcanoes shape our planet, creating unique landscapes and providing nutrients to the soil that support diverse ecosystems. They also offer a glimpse into the inner workings of our planet, helping scientists unravel the mysteries of Earth’s formation and dynamics.

View of Popocatépetl from Xalitzintla, State of Mexico, 2021. Photo by Felipe Pérez @nomadaenpatineta

We hope you enjoyed this journey into the science behind the recent eruption of Popocatépetl, and these incredible images from Mexican photographers. Stay curious and keep exploring the fascinating world of science!