There was a powerful explosion at Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano last night, shortly after Mexican authorities raised the alert level for the volcano to indicate increasing intensity.

The natural fireworks show consisted of a spectacular flash of light followed by dazzling incandescent material spilling out from the crater and down the mountainside.

According to reports, the explosion occurred at 7.48pm local time (1.48am Irish time) and a massive column of gas and ash was sent 2,500m above the volcano's crater and then dispersed to the southeast.

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Mexico's National Center for Disaster Prevention had warned people to stay away from Popocatepetl, saying that in the previous 24 hours it had observed more than 200 discharges from the volcano, some 50km to the southeast.

The centre raised the volcano's alert level to yellow phase three from yellow phase two, indicating possible magma expulsion and explosions of increasing intensity.

It is the third-highest warning on the centre’s seven-step scale, according to the Mexican Civil Protection agency.

Popocatepetl has spewed smoke and ash over the past few years, and a major eruption in 2000 forced the evacuation of nearly 50,000 residents in three states surrounding the peak.

The agency has previously said that similar intensifications of activity in the 5,450m volcano could provoke big explosions capable of sending incandescent fragments out over considerable distances, as well as ash showers.