Discovery of ‘hidden’ Colombian volcano prompts Ecuadorian geologists to investigate sites in the Andes for undiscovered volcanoes

Mar 18, 2015

The recent discovery of a previously unknown volcano in west-central Colombia has Ecuadorian geologists looking over old maps and NASA images in search of concealed volcanoes in the country’s Andes Mountains.

Satellite image shows the San Diego volcano in Colombia that is not visible on the ground.

NASA satellite image shows the El Escondido volcano in Colombia. It is not visible at ground level.

The Colombian volcano is dormant but not extinct, geologists say, and could re-erupt at a future date. “It is important that we found it since is a young volcano and could erupt again. This would be disastrous if we were unaware of it,” said Gloria Cortés, coordinator of Colombia’s Volcanological and Seismological Observatory.

“It had a massive eruption about 30,000 years ago, which is a blink of an eye in geologic time,” she added.

There are two reasons that the volcano, named Volcan El Escondido, went undetected for so long, says Cortés. It is in area that has for years been controlled by anti-government guerrillas and it was also a low altitude volcano, inconspicuous from the ground. Although there is a lake in the crater, the surrounding ridges are covered in vegetation and the volcano was only revealed when scientists studied satellite imagery.

Cortés said there are probably more volcanoes like El Escondido waiting to be discovered in the Andes Mountains, from Colombia to Chile.

Ecuadorian geologist Jorge Delgado says that similar hidden volcanoes may exist in Ecuador, from the area just south of Riobamba, north to the Colombian border. “The landscape in the Andes is the same in Ecuador as in Colombia and we have been concerned for a long time that we could have similar situations here.”

He added: “Most people, including volcanologists, think of volcanoes as being large mountains, such as Tungurahua and Cotapaxi. If these low-altitude volcanoes go undetected and are near populated areas, an eruption could be catastrophic.”

Delgado, formerly with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Italian Istituto Nazionale Geofisica e Vulcanologia, said that geologists are looking at three potential sites in Ecuador but would not disclose their locations. “We don’t want to cause alarm until we have more information,” he said.

In 2008, Ecuador’s Instituto Geofísico reported that it was investigating a possible hidden volcano in a highly populated region near Quito, but no additional information was provided and the report was subsequently withdrawn. When geologists from the USGS asked for details, the Instituto said that the investigation had been concluded and that no volcano had been found. In 2010, when a writer for Science magazine asked to see the original report, the Instituto denied that it had ever existed.

For more on the Colombian “hidden volcano,” click here.

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