Free «The Llullaillaco Volcano in Northwest Argentina» Essay Paper

The Llullaillaco Volcano in Northwest Argentina

Llullaillaco, the world’s loftiest historically active volcano, lies in a remote part of the Atacama Desert on the border between Argentina and Chile. There are no villages or other populated settlements nestled in the foothills of Llullaillaco for two reasons. First, the Atacama Desert is one of the most arid places on the planet, and, second, the region has long been notorious for high volcanic activity. With the height of 6,739 meters, Llullaillaco is the second largest volcano in the world. Moreover, in those altitudes the air is rarefied. Llullaillaco’s location suggests it should be a hotspot-type volcano, but in fact it was formed because the South American Plate lying beneath it and subducting on the Nazca Plate on a convergent boundary (Strickberger 102). Llullaillaco is a stratovolcano, meaning that it is high, cone-shaped and created as eruptions of ash, cinders, and lava built up in layers (Jones 184). Being a stratovolcano, or as they are sometimes referred to, a composite volcano, Llullaillaco is steeper than shield volcanoes and has a conical form. There is a young cone on the summit of an older eroded edifice containing mounds of viscous magma and sundry lava flows. The younger volcano started developing nearly 150,000 years ago after the upper area of the older volcano had collapsed. The most conspicuous lava streams are located on the southern and northern flanks of the volcano. The volcano is honeycombed with numerous little vents, but they have not emitted vapors for a long time. At the top of Llullaillaco’s most cinder cones are craters, but they rarely show signs of activity.

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Indeed, all volcanic and fumarolic activity on Llullaillaco tapered off back in the late 19th century. “Although it shows no signs of current fumarolic activity, there are records of at least three eruptions during the nineteenth century” (Moreno & Gibbons 154). The last time that the volcano had opened to disgorge a boiling stream of molten magma was in 1877. However, none of those eruptions could wreck havoc on the surroundings, because the area has always been unpopulated. Several adobe abodes were found on the snow-clad summit of the volcano, but their true mission has not been ascertained. Yet, Llullaillaco’s high volcanic activity in the past caused significant damage to the volcano itself. An excerpt from Moreno and Gibbon’s book could be used as a layperson’s explanation of this process:

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At some point during the late Pleistocene constructive phase, a partial sector collapse affected the volcanic edifice, generating a large debris avalanche flow directed towards the east, which traveled for at least 25 km, resulting in a deposit that covers an area of 165 square kilometers and has an estimated minimum volume of 1-2 cubic kilometers (154).

Being a quintessential example of a stratovolcano, Llullaillaco can be very unpredictable. Its eruptions can be either slow-moving or violent. Although Llullaillaco has lain dormant for almost 14 decades, people should not be deceived by it. After all, the geological history is replete with examples of the long extinct volcanoes erupting. As it was mentioned before, all the principal products of volcanic eruption pinpointed by the geologists could be observed on Llullaillaco at one point or another. Ash, falls, coulees, pyroclastics fragments, and gas emissions, all were produced by Llullaillaco (Moreno & Gibbons 154). Likewise, the volcano has a record of debris avalanche flows, a similarly hazardous phenomenon. It is a matter of conventional wisdom that these products and hazardous phenomena can inflict severe damage on whole communities located nearby. Today, however, the only thing that Llullaillaco exudes is an air of tranquility. The big imponderable issue, of course, is whether the volcano is going to erupt in the foreseeable future. For the time being, there are no concerns about it.

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With a view to predicting the long-term behavior of Llullaillaco and assessing the probability of the eruption, scientists carefully analyze its history. However, a prediction based solely on the historical activity of the volcano would not be sufficiently accurate. Thus, a variety of South American research institutions are involved in the volcano monitoring and attempt to determine whether Llullaillaco is potentially hazardous. Even though the existing research centers accomplish their job successfully, the establishment of new regional research institutions is required. Whereas it does not mean that a powerful observatory should be perched on the summit of Llullaillaco, closer attention should be devoted to potentially dangerous volcanic regions. Similarly, it is necessary to intensify monitoring of Llullaillaco by satellites.

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In 1999, an American archeologist Johan Reinhard was scaling the heights of Llullaillaco and discovered the mummified bodies of three Inca children (Previgliano, Ceruti, Reinhard, Araoz & Gonzalez-Diez 1474). In all likelihood, those children were sacrificed to Incan deities five centuries earlier. Frigid temperatures on the top of the volcano preserved the mummies so well that their organs remained intact, allowing researchers to conduct a battery of fruitful tests. A series of DNA studies conducted on the unearthed mummies has made an incontestable contribution to the understanding of the enigmatic Incan civilization that did not have written language and could no be otherwise studied. In particular, researchers were able to gain an invaluable insight into what viands they ate and viruses carried. Curiously enough, the discovered “summit shrine of Mount Llullaillaco is considered to be the highest archeological site in the world” (Previgliano et al. 1474). It remains to be seen how many other secrets the Llullaillaco Volcano hides.

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