The catastrophic lahars triggered by the 13 November 1985 eruption of the ice-clad Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia, demonstrate that the interaction of hot pyroclasts with snow and ice can release 30–50 millionm3 of meltwater in 30–90 minutes. The 1985 eruption caused a 16% loss in area and a 9% loss in volume of snow, firn and ice. Turbulent pyroclastic density currents mechanically mixed with snow and produced meltwater at a rate of 0.5–1.6mms–1. Laboratory experiments suggest that turbulent, fluidized pyroclastic density currents exert mechanical and thermal scour, thereby efficiently transferring heat from hot pyroclasts to snow. Ice cap loss at Nevado del Ruiz continued between 1985 and 2000, representing a ∽52% decline in area and a ∽30% fall in volume. Ice 60–190m thick caps the east and southeast summit plateau, whereas an ice field < 30m thick and devoid of snow is retreating on the north, northeast and west edges. This asymmetrical distribution of ice reflects combined long-term effects of the 1985 eruption and of the post-1985 ice cap retreat. Should volcanic activity resume, steep-sided glaciers can fail and pyroclastic flows and surges can sweep the snowpack and generate mixed avalanches and lahars. Although the potential source of meltwater has decreased since 1985, extensive debris at the ice cap margins can be incorporated to future lahars.