The Santa Barbara volcanic cliffs are smoldering once again

August 16, 2011SANTA BARBARA, CA. – Vesuvius, Krakatoa, Mt. St. Helens—names that conjure up images of searing heat, smoke, ash, and rivers of molten lava. Now, what about Rincon or Hope Ranch? The South Coast is not usually associated with volcanoes, but there were indeed such phenomena of a sort in our area. Actually these were not volcanos, but solfataras or fire wells, volcano-like fissures that give off sulfurous gases and steam. The first mention of the Rincon “volcano,” near the present border of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, appeared in a report written by José María Garcia about a trip in 1835 from Mission San Fernando Rey in the San Fernando Valley to Mission La Purísima near today’s Lompoc. The site, on the cliff side overlooking the beach, then basically disappears from the historical record until the 1870s, when two oil prospectors, digging an exploratory tunnel, rediscovered it. The oilmen excavated down some 250 feet, temperatures climbing as they dug, and they eventually had to abandon the project. The volcano became a bit of a tourist attraction in the 1880s, as the stagecoach route at that time went along the beach right by the site. The height of the volcano’s activity was in the early 1880s, when flames 10 feet high were reported, and rocks were flung into the air. One observer described the sulfurous gases as “almost suffocating.” This, plus the deep beach sands and the dangers of high tides and storms, must have made for quite the adventurous ride for stagecoach passengers. The Rincon volcano settled down soon after; nevertheless, one enterprising gentleman still tried to turn a quick buck by charging admission to the volcano.
 He ran a pipe to one of the fissures from a hidden stove where he planned to burn soap fat to “fire up” the volcano. The disagreeable odor of the burning fat would replace the missing smell of the sulfur. The charlatan was discovered, and his scheme unraveled. As late as the 1940s, smoke and steam still issued from the fissures, but today, the Rincon volcano is completely dormant. In a letter dated September 6, 1784, Pedro Fages, at the time governor of Alta and Baja California, described an “active volcano” halfway between Santa Barbara and the large Chumash settlement on Mescaltitlan Island in the Goleta Slough. In another letter a year later, Fages wrote, “Throughout this site, the ground is so hot one cannot approach it; it burns continuously in more than 30 places, like geysers that exude dense smoke. From its stench it appears to be from sulfur …” Another observer later wrote, “… the ground is so covered with ashes that one cannot approach it without being half-buried. … Small flames issued from the mouth from time to time.” The fissures of this Hope Ranch volcano ran some 200 feet from the beach up the cliff to the bluff top. Observers noted that when the rocks were initially submerged in a high tide, much steam was produced. The active area took up about a quarter of an acre. The volcano could be quite dramatic at night, giving off the orange glow of live coals. Located about a half a mile west of Arroyo Burro Beach near today’s Sea Ledge Lane, the site is now quiet. In 1920, some of the residents of the growing and affluent Hope Ranch community, fed up with the stench and the steady flow of curiosity seekers and fearful of the fire danger, had a water pipe run to the fissure. A pond was created over the area and, after several weeks the water apparently extinguished the subterranean fires. It doesn’t appear Santa Barbara will suffer the fate of Pompeii anytime soon. –Independent, August 16, 2011
contribution David
This entry was posted in Earth Changes, Earth Watch, Unsolved Mystery, Volcanic Eruption, Volcano Watch. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Santa Barbara volcanic cliffs are smoldering once again

  1. luisport says: There was some news over the weekend about steaming hills on the Pacific coast of California near Santa Barbara. Now, that might seem very surprising to many as there aren’t any active volcanoes on the coast of California, especially near the Los Angeles basin – however, not all steam coming from the ground is related to magma.

    All throughout the world, you can find hot springs and steam coming from heat transferred along fault zones – where rock has experienced brittle failure. These faults are excellent places for heat from within the crust to move towards the surface – and remember, even in non-tectonically active areas, the ground warms at almost 2-3C per 100 m, so it can get hot enough to boil water quite quickly (note that as the lithostatic pressure from rocks overhead goes up as you go down, the boiling point of water goes up as well, but not enough to keep water from boiling underground in many situations). You see hot springs along faults in much of the western U.S., such as in the Oregon or New Mexico (amongst many others), so we know a lot of heat can be transferred along faults.

    Now, if you look at a fault/fold map of the area around Santa Barbara (see below), you might notice that the area around Santa Barbara is riddled with faults related mostly to the Transverse Ranges – all prime candidates for transferring heat. This is borne out in the map of heat flow in California, were you can see the red and orange symbols to the north of Santa Barbara (zoom in on the map to get a better view). So, heat is readily available under the area and is being transferred towards the surface.

    Fault and fold map of the Santa Barbara area. Red lines are faults – and note the faults that propagate towards the crust near Hope Ranch, the location of the “steaming hills”.

    What else do we have near Santa Barbara? Lots of oil and other hydrocarbon deposits in the Monterey Formation, that is what! The area is littered with hydrocarbons that are actively worked – the offshore oil rigs are evidence of that. About 15 miles to the south of Santa Barbara you actually find “tar pits” as well, places where hydrocarbons ooze to the surface. These are the Carpinteria Tar Pits, the lesser-known cousin to the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

    Now, what happens if you combine abundant hydrocarbons and high heat flow? Well, anyone who has lit a BBQ grill would know – combustion. Most of the time this combustion doesn’t happen spontaneously as there isn’t a lot of oxygen in the ground to keep it going. However, if you can get oxygen to the hydrocarbons and then apply heat, you can generate subterranean fires that are very difficult to put out – this is the same as a coal seam fire that might occur in a mine. What does the surface look like during a coal seam fire? Steaming ground with an unpleasant smell (see below).

    The steaming hills near Hazard, KY – a coal seam fire that started in 2007.

    So, after the first occurrence of these steaming hills near Santa Barbara in 2006, the suggestion was made that this was caused by the ignition of hydrocarbons underground after a landslide exposed the subsurface, allowing for oxygen to penetrate. This combination of landslides followed by heating has happened before in California, back in 2004 about 40 km northeast of Santa Barbara – there is even a Geology paper on the event. Their conclusions:

    “Pyrite in the jumbled blocks of the Juncal shale oxidized rapidly when air was introduced during the initial landslide movement. Rapid oxidation of the pyrite, perhaps accelerated initially by microbes, heated the rock enough to ignite dispersed solid carbonaceous matter present in the shale. Combustion of some carbonaceous matter is necessary to provide the 13C-depleted carbon in the CO2 escaping from the slide.”

    The ingredients for this recipe for the current “steaming hills” are all right there: abundant faults and elevated heat flow, hydrocarbon deposits throughout the rock strata and water to penetrate the ground to make steam (we are on the coast, remember). No magma, no volcanism needed – just the right combination of events. Remember, Santa Barbara is no where near any of the active or potentially volcanoes of California. Now, this is still speculation as there has been little direct research on the “steaming hills” themselves (which only steam very infrequently), but it does show how easily one can let their imagination run wild hoping for volcanism where it is not possible.


    • Matt Boeck says:

      “Remember, Santa Barbara is no where near any of the active or potentially (active)volcanoes of California. Now, this is still speculation as there has been little direct research on the “steaming hills” themselves (which only steam very infrequently), but it does show how easily one can let their imagination run wild hoping for volcanism where it is not possible.”

      I would strongly disagree there is surface volcanic material less than a mile away, as far as only steaming very infrequently; more than 4 times in 300 years is frequent. no one is hoping for volcanism in this location but to state that something is not possible is simply irresponsable to say. The vent system (fumerol) associated with this vent has saline ocean water content that exceeds 200 degrees Celsius, conservativly hot enough to melt some metals. The heat source for this event is most probably a volcanic one and the exit location associated with a sheer zone in a fault that runs right next to the vent.


  2. David,

    Hi Alvin,this story is something I did not see before, you might want to check it out,I t could be some type of volcanic activety, it seems this has been going on since 2006, any ideas whats going on here?

    David, see the story in the post for the background history on Santa Barbara. The area has an interesting geological history including a chain of asphalt volcanoes which were discovered off the coast of Santa Barbara in 2010. See:

    It could be volcanic or it could be a subterranean fossil or coal-bed fire. They are virtually impossible to extinguish.


  3. luisport says:

    BreakingNews Breaking News
    Update: Shell finds 2nd oil leak in North Sea; primary leak is ‘under control’ – The Guardian
    há 3 minutos


  4. Bone Idle says:

    More like losing their bearings. Animals navigate by using using the earths magnetic lines. There are loops and dead spots.


All comments are moderated. We reserve the right not to post any comment deemed defamatory, inappropriate, or spam.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s