Seismic and Volcanic Activity in Galapagos and Continental Ecuador

 

After mapping the Andean highlands in the 19th century, German explorer Alexander von Humboldt observed that “Ecuadorians are strange and unique beings, they sleep peacefully amid smoking volcanoes.” While volcanos may seem foreboding to outsiders, volcanic activity in Galapagos and the Andes is a well-known part of the natural order of things here in Ecuador, and contributes to the unique and dramatic beauty of the landscape that we call home.

Ecuador is a small country with a great amount of geological and biological diversity. This comes in large part from its geographical location. Ecuador falls along what is called the Pacific Ring of Fire. As you can see in the map below, all land masses that surround the Pacific Ocean are exposed to the natural risks of the movements of tectonic plates, including seismic activity.

The Pacific Ring of Fire. Image credit: armostrongeconomics.com

The Pacific Ring of Fire. Image credit: armostrongeconomics.com

Geological Formation of the Ecuadorian Andes

Many populations chose the Andes as a place to settle, not in spite of, but rather because of the region’s geological sensitivity. The Incas, and the indigenous inhabitants they conquered, chose to live in this region because of its closeness to the sun. Assuming the risk of living in geologically active areas offered a greater connection with the surrounding natural environment and its deities.

The high amount of volcanic activity in the Andes is caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Ecuador sits on top of a subduction zone: Off the Pacific coast, the Nazca plate comes into contact with the South American continental plate and is pushed under it. Magma comes to the Earth´s crust when the Nazca plate is forced below the continental plate.

 

Nazca Plate Subduction Image Credit: Indiana University

Nazca Plate Subduction. Image Credit: Indiana University

It is this unique formative process that has given us the mountains and valleys that characterize the majestic Ecuadorian landscapes that we know and admire.

 

The Andes mountain range was formed by the process of plate subduction. Image credit: marieaway.com

The Andes mountain range was formed by the process of plate subduction. Image credit: marieaway.com

Volcanic Activity in Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands continue to be a land in the process of formation. The volcanoes on the archipelago, with their related geological activity, have nothing to do with the Andean volcanoes and their activity. Volcanic activity in Galapagos is not caused by plate subduction, but rather by a geolocial phenomenon called hot spots.

Only the volcanoes on the eastern islands of the Galapagos are actually considered active (Isabela and Fernandina).

 

Although there is active volcanism in Ecuador, the vast majority of the country’s volcanoes are inactive. Geologically speaking, Ecuador is experiencing a period of medium to low risk for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Events like the April 2016 earthquake that shook the coastal region of the country, luckily, are rare. Although the country does exhibit some volcanic and seismic activity, strong events like the one we experienced recently, do not occur often.

The latest volcanic activity in Galapagos: eruption of Wolf Volcano in 2015 Image credit: NASA

The latest volcanic activity in Galapagos: eruption of Wolf Volcano in 2015
Image credit: NASA

The latest episode of volcanic activity in Galapagos occured on Wolf Island in 2015. This is one of the Westernmost islands in the archipelago and not close to the majority of Galapagos visitor sites. While considering that safety is the first priority for guests, during volcanic events the Galapagos National Park does allow for changes to travel itineraries to allow visitors to witness these spectacular and exceptional eruptions, conditions permiting.

What to Expect

Seismic activity (tremors and earthquakes) in continental Ecuador has two distinct origins: tectonic movements or volcanic events.

Each day, the earth experiences an average of 1,200 to 2,000 seismic events, and although some are felt on the earth’s surface, many are not. Some tectonic seismic events allow pressure to be released along fault lines. These jolts may not necessarily occur very deep within the Earth, and for that reason they are felt as strong events: the vibrations quickly reach the crust of the lithosphere. To measure the magnitude of a tremor or earthquake, seismologists use the Richter scale, which blends its calculations from a variety of factors including the origin of the event, the kinds of waves it generates, and the depth of the epicenter.

Metropolitan Touring is a full compliance DMC that places the safety of its guests and employees above every other consideration. Its emergency committee swings into immediate action in the case of any potential risk and guests, crew, and other relevant parties are kept informed immediately in the case of any challenging events.

Writer, translator. Enthusiastic traveler of Ecuador and the Galapagos.