Tag Archives: Calbuco

Taking the pulse of a large volcano: Mocho-Choshuenco, Chile

27 Apr

As the recent eruptions of Calbuco and Villarrica in southern Chile have shown, the long arcs of volcanoes that stretch around the world’s subduction zones have the potential to cause widespread disruption to lives and livelihoods, with little or no warning. Fortunately, neither of these eruptions has, so far, led to any reported loss of life – but the consequences  of these eruptions for the communities living within reach of the ash plumes and beyond will continue to play out for months or years into the future.


The young cone of Mocho volcano, southern Chile, which may have erupted as recently as 1937. Mocho-Choshuenco volcano is one focus of our ongoing work in the region.

We have been working in southern Chile for a few years now, helping to extend what is known about past explosive eruptions at some of the region’s most active volcanoes. In this part of Chile, the written records of past eruptions only extend back a few hundred years – at the most – so most of our work has involved digging into the geological records of the region, to try and piece together the fragmentary stories of past eruptions. This can be slow and painstaking work, both in the field and in the laboratory, but is always exciting when things start to come together.

Field sampling on Mocho-Choshuenco volcano: deposits of the ‘Enco’ eruption.

This week, Harriet Rawson has published her first major scientific paper on the volcanic eruption history of Mocho-Choshuenco over the past 18,000 years. The 18,000 year timescale spans the volcanic activity that has taken place since the end of the last ice age; and we can be fairly confident that by visiting hundreds of sites around the volcano, we have found most of the ‘major’  eruptions, and many of the ‘moderate’ explosive eruptions from this volcano over this time period. The results of Harriet’s work are summarised in the picture below – which shows the timing, composition and sizes of eruptions through time. Just for context, the March 3 eruption of Villarrica was small (10 million cubic metres of ash, or magnitude 3 on the y axis), with a composition represented by an orange colour (so a bit like the Mocho eruptions around 4,000 years ago); while the April 22 eruption of Calbuco was moderate (210 million cubic metres of ash, or magnitude 4.5 on the y axis), and a composition in the green to pale blue range (like the eruption around 2000 years ago).


The record of explosive volcanic eruptions at Mocho-Choshuenco volcano over the past 18,000 years (from Rawson et al., 2015). The x axis shows time, as ‘thousands of years before present’, based on radiocarbon dating of flecks of charcoal preseved within the deposits. The y-axis shows the ‘size’ of the eruption, in terms of the eruption magnitude, which is a logarithmic scale of erupted mass or volume of ash and pumice. The coloured curves represent the age and erupted composition of the volcanic events that have been recognised – with the ‘peak’ of the curve showing the best estimate of the eruption age, and size. The width of the curve gives an indication of the uncertainty in the timing of the eruption. The cartoon parallel to the x-axis shows how regional climate and ice cover at the volcano are thought to have changed over the same time period.

In many ways, this work is just the start of the forensic process of understanding how this particular volcano works and of the threats it might pose for the future;  but it is also a critical piece of the jigsaw in terms of understanding the pulse of the volcanic arc, and crossing the gap between the geological past, and the volcanic present.


The wonderful ‘Salto Huilo Huilo‘ in the Huilo Huilo ecological reserve, at the foot of Mocho-Choshuenco.


This work has been funded primarily by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, and represents the outcome of many years of collaborations with colleagues from the Chilean Geological Survey, SERNAGEOMIN, with field work in the region supported by numerous colleagues and assistants, and with the support of CONAF and Reserva Huilo-Huilo.


K Fontijn et al., 2014, Late Quaternary tephrostratigraphy of southern Chile and Argentina, Quaternary Science Reviews 89, 70 – 84. [Open Access]

H Rawson et al., 2015, The frequency and magnitude of post-glacial explosive eruptions at Volcan Mocho-Choshuenco, southern Chile. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2015.04.003 [Open Access] Datasets available on figshare.

DM Pyle, 2015, Sizes of volcanic eruptions, Chapter 13 in Sigurdsson et al., eds, Encyclopedia of Volcanoes, 2nd edition, pp 257-264. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-385938-9.00013-4


Friday Field Photos: the Southern Volcanic Zone of Chile

30 Aug

If you are ever in Chile and have the chance to take a mid-morning flight south from Santiago towards Puerto Montt or Concepcion, make sure you try and book a window seat on the left hand side of the plane.  Once the early morning cloud has cleared, you could be in for a treat as you fly along the ‘volcanic front’, with spectacular views of Chile’s brooding volcanoes popping up from the landscape. Be sure to take a map, too, so that you can work out which one is which. The pictures below are roughly in order, flying from north to south – and several major volcanoes of the chain aren’t included.

There are several things to notice about these volcanoes – they are often in pairs, either as distinct but closely spaced mountains (Tolhauca and Lonquimay), or as ‘twin peaks’ forming the summit of an elongated massif (e.g. Llaima, Mocho Choshuenco). Many of the volcanoes are also clearly very young structures – forming wonderfully characteristic conical shapes (e.g. Antuco, Villarrica, Osorno). These cones must be younger than 15 – 20,000 years (and perhaps much younger than this), based on what we know about when the last major glaciation in the region ended. These cones sit on top of the lower-relief and older parts of the volcanoes, many of which have been reshaped by caldera-collapse, perhaps shortly after the ice retreated during deglaciation. The accessibility of the volcanoes of the Southern Volcanic Zone of the Andes makes this a wonderful place to study volcanic processes and volcano behaviour, both at the scale of individual eruptions, as well on the regional scale.

The river Cachapoal runs out of the Andes mountains, past the city of Rancagua

The river Cachapoal runs out of the Andes mountains, past the city of Rancagua

The saddle-shaped volcanic complex of Planchon-Peteroa (35.2 S), which last erupted in 2011.

The saddle-shaped volcanic complex of Planchon-Peteroa (35.2 S), which last erupted in 2011.

Cerro Azul volcano, Chile.

The spectacular ice-filled summit crater of Descabezado Grande volcano, Chile, at 35.6 S. The last eruption from this complex was in 1932, shortly after an eruption of the  nearby volcano Cerro Azul (or Quizapu).

View across the volcanoes of Tolhuaca (or Tolguaca, near ground) and Lonquimay (38.3 S). Both volcanoes are young, but it is not known when Tolhuaca last erupted. Lonquimay last erupted from 1988-1990.

View across the volcanoes of Tolhuaca (or Tolguaca, near ground) and Lonquimay (38.3 S). Both volcanoes are young, but it is not known when Tolhuaca last erupted. Lonquimay last erupted from 1988-1990.


The young cone of Volcan Antuco, 37.4 S. Its last known eruption was in 1869.


Twin-peaked Llaima (38.7 S) is one of the most active volcanoes of southern Chile, and last erupted in 2009.


Volcan Sollipulli (39 S) has a spectacular ice-filled summit caldera, but is not thought to have erupted since the 18th Century


Panorama across three young volcanoes, looking east: Villarrica (39.4 S) in front; the snow-covered sprawl of Quetrupillan in the middle ground; and the peak of volcan Lanin, on the Chile – Argentina border, in the distance.


Villarrica, with a characteristic thin gas and aerosol plume rising from the open crater at the summit.


The twin-peaked volcanoes Mocho Choshuenco (39.7 S). Choshuenco, thought to be the older vent, is the angular crag nearer the camera; Mocho is the small cone in the middle of the summit plateau. Mocho last erupted in 1937.


Looking across a bank of cloud towards volcan Osorno (front, 41.1 S), and volcan Tromen, in the background. Osorno last erupted in 1869; Tromen is thought to have last erupted in 1822.


Volcan Calbuco (41.3 S), which last erupted in 1972.

Data source: information on the recent eruptions of these volcanoes is all from the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Project.

Further reading:

CR Stern, 2004, Active Andean volcanism: its geologic and tectonic setting. Revista geologica de Chile 31, 161-206 [Open Access].

SFL Watt et al., 2009, The influence of great earthquakes on volcanic eruption rate along the Chilean subduction zone. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 277 (3-4), 399-407.

SFL Watt et al., 2013,The volcanic response to deglaciation: evidence from glaciated arcs and a reassessment of global eruption records, Earth-Science Reviews 122, 77-102.

Acknowledgements: my fieldwork in Chile over the past 10 years has been funded by NERC, IAVCEI and the British Council. Many thanks to my parents for introducing me to Chile and its volcanoes at the age of 7; and to Jose Antonio Naranjo and many others at SERNAGEOMIN for facilitating our continuing work in the region.