Imaggeo on Mondays: The unique bogs of Patagonia

Imaggeo on Mondays: The unique bogs of Patagonia

Patagonia, the region in southernmost tip of South America, is as diverse as it is vast. Divided by the Andes, the arid steppes, grasslands and deserts of Argentina give way to the temperate rainforests, fjords and glaciers of Chile. Also on the Chilean side are rolling hills and valleys of marshy topography: Patagonia’s bogs. Today, Klaus-Holger Knorr, a researcher at the University of Münster’s Institute for Landscape Ecology, tells us about what makes these peatlands so unique.

This picture shows an ombrotrophic, oceanic bog at the Seno Skyring Fjord, Patagonia, Chile. It is a view from the inner part of the peatland south toward the shore of the Fjord, in the background Isla Escapada and the Gran Campo ice field. Ombrotrophic bogs are peatlands (accumulations of more or less decomposed plant material which collect in a water-saturated environment) receiving their water and nutrients solely from the atmosphere, i.e. by rain, wet and dry deposition.

Similar to their Northern counterparts in Canada, Northern US, Fennoscandia or Siberia, these southern Patagonian peatlands  formed after the last deglaciation and accumulated huge amounts of carbon as peat.

Peatlands cover only about 3 % of the global land surface but store about a third of the soil carbon pool. Peat is formed primarily as there is excess rainfall, peat soils are water logged, oxygen gets depleted, and decomposition is limited. Pristine, undisturbed peatlands can store as much as 10-50 g carbon per square meter and year.

What makes the peatlands in Patagonia  particularly interesting  is their pristine, undisturbed conditions and extremely low input of nutrients from the atmosphere, compared to the high input into sites in densely settled or industrial regions. This allows studies of peatland functioning under natural conditions and absence of anthropogenic impacts.

Moreover, peatlands in Patagonia harbor a specific kind of vegetation, including cushion forming plants such as Astelia pumila and Donatia fascicularis. These cushion forming plants have a very low above ground biomass but an extremely large rooting system, reaching down to a depth of >2 m in case of A. pumila. As these roots act as conduits for oxygen to sustain viability of the roots in the water logged peat, they have been shown to aerate large parts even of the saturated zone, thereby impeding high methane production and emission. Oxygen supply by these roots is even hypothesized to stimulate peat decomposition and thereby lead to particularly decomposed peat under cushion plant cover.

Another plant species only occurring in peatlands of Southern Patagonia, a small conifer named Lepidothamnus fonkii, has developed a particular strategy to overcome nutrient deficiency: it has formed a close association with bacteria being able fix atmospheric nitrogen to fulfill the demand of nitrogen for growth. While such nitrogen fixation is well known for legumes and some tree species, it has rarely been found for conifers.

A further important factor for peatlands in Patagonia, leading to the term “oceanic bogs”, is the fact that these peatlands in close vicinity to the seashore receive high inputs of sea salts from sea spray, modifying availability of associated elements such as Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Sulphur and others.

By Klaus-Holger Knorr, researcher at the University of Münster’s Institute for Landscape Ecology

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Shaking on Christmas Day: what we know about the 7.6 M Chile earthquake

Chile, Chiloe earthquake

While the majority of us were midway through our Christmas Day celebrations, a powerful 7.6 M earthquake struck off the western coast of the Chile. Natural hazards are not bound by time, location or festivities; an earthquake can happen at any time in any place, regardless of the significance of the day. As a result, in this earthquake prone region, raising awareness of the risk posed by natural hazards is vitally important.

The Christmas Day quake struck 42 km south west of the port city of Quellón, on the rural island of Chiloé at a depth of 34 km. Despite the powerful shaking, the tremor caused no casualties and damage to infrastructure was limited. For a time, services (such as water and power) to the southern tip of Chiloé were cut. Most affected were roads and bridges, particularly the recently renovated highway 5, which links Quellón with the fishing town of Chonchi.

The earthquake triggered a tsunami warning, leading to the evacuation of 4000 people in the coastal areas of Los Lagos Region, including the towns of Quellón and Chonchi. However, no tsunami waves were reported and the warning was lifted some 90 minutes after the temblor.

Chile’s long history of powerful earthquakes

As recently as September 2015, an 8.3 M tremor hit Illapel, causing 13 casualties, 6 missing and triggering a 4.5 m tsunami wave, with shaking felt as far as Bolivia and Argentina.

A powerful, and destructive, 8.8 M quake struck Maule in February 2010. On land, there was severe loss to infrastructure and housing, while a tsunami wave caused significant damage to coastal areas. Combined, the earthquake and tsunami resulted in the deaths of more than 500 people.

The most powerful tremor ever recorded, the estimated 9.5 M Valdivia earthquake, struck Chile in May 1960. More than 2,000 people were reported dead, a further 3,000 went missing and over 2,000,000 were left homeless. The damage in Southern Chile alone amounted to over $550 million. Tsunami waves generated by the quake struck Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines and the western USA coast, causing a further $50.5 million in damages and killing 231 people.

Damage to houses after the Valdivia earthquake, Chile

Damage to several houses in Chile after the earthquake. Credit: Pierre St. Amand – NGDC Natural Hazards Slides with Captions Header, Public Domain (distributed by Wikimedia Commons)

What causes earthquakes in Chile and what does the future hold?

Chile lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area known for its high seismic and volcanic activity. Here, tectonic plates slide against each other, pull apart or converge and subduct under one another generating geologically active zones.

To understand why powerful earthquakes occur in Chile, we asked Cindy Mora Stock, a seismologist at the University of Concepción (Chile), to give us a more detailed insight into the tectonics of the region:

Earthquakes along the Chilean coast occur at the interface between the South American plate and the subducted Nazca plate. The rapid velocity between these plates (66 – 90 mm/yr) increases the potential for great earthquakes in the region, presenting on average an event of magnitude 8, or larger, every ten years. As a comparison, the Antarctic plate subducts under South American plate at a much slower rate (16 – 22 mm/yr).

The latest Mw 7.6 earthquake near Quellón on 25th of December [1], falls in the central part of the rupture zone (the portion of the fault which slipped during) of  the Valdivia earthquake – roughly 380 km south from Valdivia.

A study by Lange et al in 2007 showed a cluster of four main 4.0 < Ml < 4.4 events and their afteshocks, occurring at the interface between 12-30 km depth, beneath the western coast of Chiloe Island. Another study by Moreno et al in 2011 shows some patches at the interface that ruptured during the previous 1960 event, which are more stuck than other areas at the same interface.

Especially, computer simulations show the interface at the center part of the 1960’s rupture zone is fully locked, this means that part is “stuck”, not moving, and accumulating energy. Zones that present a high locking rate have shown to be prone areas for the nucleation of a great earthquake in the future. Although in all presented scenarios the Chiloe Island presents a high locking rate, this is not enough to state a range of time when an earthquake will occur at this patch.  Considering this, the previous seismicity, and the present Mw7.6 earthquake in the region it might seem like the interface might have ended its and it is starting to build up stress for a future earthquake.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer, and Cindy Mora Stock, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Concepcion, Chile.


References and further reading

[1] Intensities of shaking felt after the 25 December earthquake (in Spanish):

[2] Lange, D., Rietbrock, A., Haberland, E., et al.: Seismicity and geometry of the south Chilean subduction zone (41.5°S–43.5°S): Implications for controlling parameters, Geophysical Research Letters, 34, L06311, doi: 0.1029/2006GL029190, 2007

[3] Moreno, M., Melnick, D., Rosenau, M., et al.: Heterogeneous plate locking in the South–Central Chile subduction zone: Building up the next great earthquake, Earth and Planetary Research Letters, 305, 3-4, 413-424, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2011.03.025, 2011 (Paywalled)

USGS overview of M7.6 – 42km SW of Puerto Quellon, Chile (includes shake maps, regional tectonic information and moment tensor details):

Understanding Tectonic Processes Following Great Earthquakes (Eos: Earth & Space Science News)

25 December earthquake in the news:
·         Chile earthquake tsunami warning lifted (BBC News report)
·         Major quake jolts Chile tourist region on Christmas Day (Reuters in-depth news report)
·         Chile jolted by major 7.6-magnitude earthquake (Guardian News)
·         Imagenes del terremoto al sur de Chile (in Spanish: Images of the earthquake in Southern Chile – Gestión, diario de econimía y negocios de Perú)

A journey into the Cordon Caulle volcano

A journey into the Cordon Caulle volcano

There is no escaping the fact that one of the perks of being an Earth scientist is the opportunity to visit incredible places while on field work. There is also no doubt that, geologist or not, walking on an active volcano is awe inspiring. Maybe you’ve had the experience of doing so yourself (if so, share your story with us in the comments section, we’d love to hear from you!), but if you haven’t then perhaps this post by Fabian Wadsworth, a volcanology PhD student at the Ludwig-Maximillian Universitat of Munich, Germany and part of the VUELCO project, might give you a feel for what it is like. In the post, Fabian describes his experience of journeying into the Cordon Caulle volcano, in Chile. A regular hiker of the German Alps, Fabian described the difference between climbing the impressive, but well-established trails of the Bavarian mountains to his trip to Chile: “a volcano, is dynamic on a large scale and provides little comfort at all. Hiking in active volcanic landscapes is, for me, more vivid and awakening for this reason.”

Ian Schipper with Jon Castro watching the mouth of the volcano churning out volcanic ash. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

Ian Schipper with Jon Castro watching the mouth of the volcano churning out volcanic ash. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

Dr. Hugh Tuffen, Dr. Ian Schipper and Prof. Jon Castro are volcanologists who study how magmas move, flow and explode on their way up to and over the Earth’s surface. They invited me to join them to Cordon Caulle in January 2014, just two years after it stopped erupting explosively in 2012. This team of researchers had been there in 2011 and in 2012 when it was most vigorously exploding and this post combines photographic reflections on their experience and some from my trip to give you a view of this place and the hike that led us into the volcano’s mouth.

This volcano is unique. It is a type of volcano that produces vast quantities of volcanic glass: obsidian. As well as erupting a huge volcanic cloud, typical of many eruptions, it slowly pushed out a dark tongue of obsidian that was hot enough to squeeze at glacial rates down and away from the source. This kind of eruption is rare and Cordon Caulle is the only time in history that such a phenomenon has been witnessed and studied. Scientists are working to understand how the region can be blanketed by volcanic ash – the result of massive explosions – while this seemingly gentle tongue is pushed out at the same time. In this way, obsidian is one of the most interesting materials to volcanologists and it draws us from all over the world to hike in these wonder-places.

From Puerto Monnt we travelled the 125 km northeast deep into the Andes. The hike to the volcano begins with a long journey through forest up to the highland plateaus. In 2012 this forested land was densely covered in ash from the volcano, Hugh told me, but by 2014 had fully recovered its lush green. From the plateau, the Andes unfold before you and make the many hours hiking feel insignificant. We carried our equipment as well as water, food and sleeping gear ready for a week or more spent in the shadow of the lava. In 2012, the noise of the eruption was intense and could be heard for kilometres around. By 2014-2015, all was quiet except for the buzzing of horseflies and the occasional creek from the heavy glass lava that still crumbled its way over the sand.

The forest land on the hike up in 2012. Hugh remembers the ash filling his hair and covering everything. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

The forest land on the hike up in 2012. Hugh remembers the ash filling his hair and covering everything. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

All around are the dunes of the highland plateaus, ribbed with rainwater gullies and patches of ice, which quench the thirst of hardworking volcanologists.

The dunes of the highland plateaus light up in the low sun. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

The dunes of the highland plateaus light up in the low sun. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

Walking from site to site is hard because the ash-laden sand is soft and sometimes you sink deep. Boots fill with pebble-sized volcanic shards that litter the ground from the last eruption. The distances are also deceptive. The lava, this slow-moving lava flow of glass, is almost forty meters high and many kilometres wide. We made basecamp at one end of the lava and each day hiked to places of interest, sometimes for hours, around the plateaus.

Hugh returned in 2015 yet again with Mike James and student Nathan Magnall and walked between slivers of cloud and tongues of glassy lava. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

Hugh returned in 2015 yet again with Mike James and student Nathan Magnall and walked between slivers of cloud and tongues of glassy lava. Image Credit: Dr. Hugh Tuffen

Starting before dawn, we took one day to set off for a place no one has seen before. We wanted to climb into the mouth of the volcano; into the vent from where the lava was being pushed out back in 2011 and 2012. No one has been into such a place before – the source of obsidian – and we thought that some of the observations we could make would hold a key to the puzzle of these eruptions. We hiked for hours around the great lava flow and to the back side of the vent area. We put on our gas masks to filter some of the still-circulating toxic volcanic gases and particles and we pulled our hats down against the fierce sun. We climbed the cone to the top and peered down into the vent area itself. From that vantage point we circled down the cone’s rim and into the vent proper. From there, gazing back up at the inner walls of the volcano, Hugh, Jon and Ian remembered watched this area explode and writhe just a few years before at the height of eruption. With an uneasy feeling, we set about learning what we could from the rocks and glass at the source of obsidian on our Earth’s surface.

Snatching our hard-won science, we returned to camp only after dark, hungry and thirsty and shared the small celebratory whisky ration we had brought with us. This day, inside the volcano, will remain among the most vivid in my life. And now, back in Munich, I can readily recall the sulfur smell and shine of the glass in that place.

Hugh, Ian and Jon will no doubt continue to return to this enigmatic place to learn more each year and will listen out for the next time obsidian erupts. Nathan Magnall has recently embarked on a PhD project focused on unveiling more of the mysteries of this place and Tuppence Stone, Toby Strong and Christiaan Munoz Salas, who joined Hugh in January 2015, filmed for the forthcoming BBC2 Patagonia series. You can also watch Hugh talk about Cordon Caulle in the video below too – skip to minute 13:00.

The poetry of the place should surely draw people from all disciplines to walk on those new stones – something I emphatically encourage you to do.

By Fabian Wadsworth, PhD Student Ludwig-Maximillian Universitat.

This post was originally posted on the Yetirama Blog. For the original post, please follow this link. We are very thankful to Dr. Hugh Tuffen for the use of his images in this post.