Report on Cotopaxi (Ecuador) — December 2003

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 28, no. 12 (December 2003)
Managing Editor: Richard Wunderman.

Cotopaxi (Ecuador) During May-December 2003 seismicity moderate, degassing and inflation variable

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 2003. Report on Cotopaxi (Ecuador). In: Wunderman, R (ed.), Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 28:12. Smithsonian Institution.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin



0.677°S, 78.436°W; summit elev. 5911 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

This report contains details of seismicity at Cotopaxi during May through December 2003. In general, seismicity was low and within normal levels, occasionally punctuated by increased activity. Fumarolic and inflationary activity varied throughout the period.

Seismicity during the first week of May was characterized by a high number of fracture-related volcano-tectonic events in the N, NE, and S zones, up to 15 km from the summit. These events were located at depths between 3 and 15 km below the summit. On 2 May at 0949 a volcano-tectonic event on the S flank occurred at ~ 3 km depth. Based on the coda, the event was calculated as M 3.2, a value considered moderate at this volcano. At 1918 on 2 May a long-period event was recorded at the Cotopaxi, Antisana, and Guagua Pichincha seismic stations. It lasted about 180 seconds. The earthquake was followed by a low-frequency (1.6 Hz) tremor signal lasting about 150 seconds.

Between 2 and 4 May deflation was recorded, with slight variations. On 2 May staff at the Refuge felt earthquakes. On 3 May the staff saw steam plumes at heights of 400-800 m above the crater, which blew W. On 3 and 4 May observations were made at the Refuge and the summit. Staff smelled sulfur halfway to the summit; and found new fumaroles in the Yanasacha area. On 4 May these fumaroles generated white steam plumes up to 50 m above the summit. Fumarole temperatures were 29-31°C.

A tectonic earthquake was recorded on 8 May, but although tremor episodes increased, volcano-tectonic earthquakes were fewer during 5-11 May than the previous week. Seismicity continued to drop during the week of 12-18 May. Although some low-amplitude tremor occurred during that interval, activity was dominated by long-period earthquakes. Earthquakes increased slightly the following week, but seismicity remained lower than average for the year. Low-frequency tremor lasting under 10 minutes was recorded on 23 May; tectonic activity on 24 May occurred in the zone of Saquisili and was determined to be unrelated to Cotopaxi. During the final week of May, long-period events and tremor signals increased slightly but seismicity continued to remain within the normal parameters established as of November 2001, when Cotopaxi entered a period of unusual seismic and fumarolic activity.

Activity remained generally constant through June, with episodes of harmonic tremor increasing slightly between 9 and 15 June and again on 23 June. White steam plumes reached 300 m high on 4 June, but later they were under 100 m high. At the end of June there was a slight tendency toward deflation; tremor events increased slightly and usually had fundamental frequencies of ~ 1.7 Hz.

Between 7 and 13 July the number of long-period events increased, as did the number of hybrid events. However, tremor decreased, and the average number of earthquakes per day (8) was lower than in recent periods of increased activity. The average number of earthquakes per day decreased again the following week. Notable tremor occurred on 20 July, with episodes lasting between 80 and 125 seconds and reduced displacement varying from 0.5 to 11 cm2. During the week of 21-27 July activity increased slightly, from 6.6 to 8.3 events per day, but in general seismic data indicated a state of low activity during July.

In early August seismicity rose to an average of 20 events per day, and tremor signals increased, especially on 8-10 August. However, the released energy remained low throughout August. Earthquakes registered that month were generally small, and tremor signals were constant except for two periods of harmonic tremor on 28 August.

Although seismicity remained low in early September, on 6 September instruments registered a low-frequency (0.9 Hz), low-amplitude tremor lasting more than 3 hours. On 18 September a cluster of earthquakes (characterized by long-period events and hybrid events) began around 1300 and lasted ~ 4 hours. A second cluster occurred the next day, lasting ~ 6 hours. The earthquakes associated with these clusters were located between 1 and 4 km below the summit. Fumarolic activity was normal for most of September, although a gas discharge was reported on 21 September. After 21 September seismicity returned to normal levels, and continued to decrease through the following week.

Seismicity generally remained low for the next few months. Volcano-tectonic earthquakes and tremor increased slightly during 13-19 October. Three distinct episodes of tremor on 15, 17, and 18 October consisted of similar events with dominant frequencies of 0.8-0.9 Hz. Seismicity into November remained low, with no significant episodes of tremor and only small events.

By mid-December seismicity increased and although activity remained within normal levels, the occurrence of high-frequency tremor was noteworthy. Also through mid-December, a slight odor of sulfur was reported, as well as occasional columns of steam no higher than 300 m.

Correction: A brown plume mentioned on 7 December 2002 (BGVN 27:12) might be misinterpreted as evidence of an ash-bearing emission. Gorki Ruiz, a colleague of Pete and Patty Hall, clarified events and interpretations from that date. He interviewed guards at the Cotopaxi refugio, who stated that neither they nor others at the refugio that day had observed emissions. They discounted observations of ash emissions and noted that although fumarolic plumes frequently reach 300 m above the summit, no phreatic explosions had occurred. That time interval was also one of low seismicity.

Geologic Background. Symmetrical, glacier-clad Cotopaxi stratovolcano is Ecuador's most well-known volcano and one of its most active. The steep-sided cone is capped by nested summit craters, the largest of which is about 550 x 800 m in diameter. Deep valleys scoured by lahars radiate from the summit of the andesitic volcano, and large andesitic lava flows extend to its base. The modern conical edifice has been constructed since a major collapse sometime prior to about 5000 years ago. Pyroclastic flows (often confused in historical accounts with lava flows) have accompanied many explosive eruptions, and lahars have frequently devastated adjacent valleys. The most violent historical eruptions took place in 1744, 1768, and 1877. Pyroclastic flows descended all sides of the volcano in 1877, and lahars traveled more than 100 km into the Pacific Ocean and western Amazon basin. The last significant eruption took place in 1904.

Information Contacts: Geophysical Institute (IG), Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Apartado 17-01-2759, Quito, Ecuador (URL: