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Earth scientists on an expedition to the highest active volcano in the world

31 January 2024
A team of scientists led by earth scientist Anouk Beniest is going on a geophysical expedition to the highest active volcano in the world: the Ojos del Salado in Chile.

The volcano last erupted about a thousand years ago, but the magma chamber still generates earthquakes. During the expedition, the scientists will investigate the size and structure of these magma chambers. They want to know how the exchange of heat and minerals takes place between the magma chamber and the meteorological water (such as rain and snow) that seeps into the crust.

Migration routes
Around the volcano there are mineral-rich lakes that have a volcanic origin. Beniest and her team are looking for the migration routes of those fluids that are rich in minerals. Such fluids start out as rainwater, seep into the ground and then exchange minerals with volcanic rock. The liquids then migrate back to the surface and end up in lakes at an altitude of more than four thousand meters.

Climate change
How do those migration routes run? That's what the researchers want to find out. The mineral-rich fluids are warm and must migrate through a layer of permafrost. This heat transport is currently reasonably balanced, but due to climate change it is possible that the interaction between warm fluids on the one hand, and permafrost and other forms of ice (e.g. glaciers) on the other, will play a greater role. As a result, ice in these mountains can melt faster.

Looking for earthquakes
The migration of fluids can be accompanied by earthquakes. The team will therefore deploy seismometers (earthquake meters) on the volcano. They hope that this will reveal both the active parts of the magma chamber and the migration routes of fluids.

Various universities
During this expedition, scientists from the VU will work together with colleagues from Utrecht University and the Chilean Universidad de Atacama. They go up the volcano to place the seismometers. Three weeks later they return to collect the seismometers.