Combining 3D seismics, eyewitness accounts and numerical simulations to reconstruct the 1888 Ritter Island sector collapse and tsunami

Jens Karstens*, Karim Kelfoun, Sebastian F.L. Watt, Christian Berndt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The 1888 Ritter Island volcanic sector collapse triggered a regionally damaging tsunami. Historic eyewitness accounts allow the reconstruction of the arrival time, phase and height of the tsunami wave at multiple locations around the coast of New Guinea and New Britain. 3D seismic interpretations and sedimentological analyses indicate that the catastrophic collapse of Ritter Island was preceded by a phase of deep-seated gradual spreading within the volcanic edifice and accompanied by a submarine explosive eruption, as the volcanic conduit was cut beneath sea level. However, the potential impact of the deep-seated deformation and the explosive eruption on tsunami genesis is unclear. For the first time, it is possible to parameterise the different components of the Ritter Island collapse with 3D seismic data, and thereby test their relative contributions to the tsunami. The modelled tsunami arrival times and heights are in good agreement with the historic eyewitness accounts. Our simulations reveal that the tsunami was primarily controlled by the displacement of the water column by the collapsing cone at the subaerial-submarine boundary and that the submerged fraction of the slide mass and its mobility had only a minor effect on tsunami genesis. This indicates that the total slide volume, when incorporating the deep-seated deforming mass, is not directly scalable for the resulting tsunami height. Furthermore, the simulations show that the tsunamigenic impact of the explosive eruption energy during the Ritter Island collapse was only minor. However, this relationship may be different for other volcanogenic tsunami events with smaller slide volumes or larger magnitude eruptions, and should not be neglected in tsunami simulations and hazard assessment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2659-2677
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Earth Sciences
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Open Access funding provided by Projekt DEAL. We would like to thank the German Ministry of Science and Education (BMBF) for funding this study through the “Ritter Island project” (03G0252A). We thank the master and the crew of the RV Sonne for their support during research cruise SO252. Furthermore, we thank the reviewers Irene Manzella and Alessandro Fornaciai for improving the quality of this study with their helpful comments. We would like to thank the GEBCO and SRTM initiatives for providing access to global digital elevation data and Schlumberger and IHS for granting educational licenses for the interpretation of the seismic data.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Ritter Island
  • Tsunami simulations
  • Volcanic sector collapse
  • Volcanogenic tsunami genesis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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