Hiding in plain sight: Colombia’s newest volcano

Can you spot the volcano? The ridge in the center of the photograph is part of the rim of the El Escondido volcano.
Can you spot the volcano? The ridge in the center of the photograph is part of the rim of the El Escondido volcano. Servicio Geologico Colombiano

It’s not often that scientists discover a new volcano, but that’s what happened in the farming village of Florencia — smack in the middle of the country.

Colombia’s Geological Service (SGC) announced this week that an overgrown mound that had long been mistaken for a hill was, in fact, a dormant but highly explosive volcano.

Locals in Florencia said the geographical bump was so unimpressive it didn’t even have a name. Now it’s been dubbed El Escondido or “The Hidden.”

It’s easy to see why it was overlooked. At less than 6,000 feet, the volcano is among the smallest in Colombia, said Marta Calvache, the director of geological threats at the SGC.

“It’s not very distinctive,” she admits. “It doesn’t have that beautiful conical shape that people associate with volcanoes.”

Instead, emerging from thick vegetation, is the outline of a partially collapsed crater that encircles lava domes — also overgrown.

It was also in the wrong place, said Maria Luisa Monsalve, the SGC geologist who began studying the formation in 2013. Most of Colombia’s volcanoes are clustered along the Central and Western chains of the Andes and usually hug the peaks. El Escondido was found along the flanks of the Eastern Andes.

The position makes it intriguing, she said, “Because we don’t understand its geological origin.”

Researchers think El Escondido erupted 30,000 years ago, but the long silence is reason to be wary. Active volcanoes, like those found in Hawaii and Italy that provide vivid shows of leaping lava, tend to be more predicable.

“Those erupt with more frequency but they’re not as explosive as the ones that stay dormant for thousands or even tens of thousands of years,” Calvache said. She compared El Escondido to Mount St. Helens in Washington State, which erupted spectacularly in 1980, killing dozens.

Monsalve agreed, calling El Escondido “highly explosive.”

While geologists will monitor the site for increased activity, there are no indications that El Escondido is shrugging to life or poses an immediate threat, Calvache said.

Florencia, in the department of Caldas, is a sleepy agricultural village of about 4,500 people. Now it’s coming to terms with the fact that it was built in the shadow of a volcano.

Conrado Rojas, the head of the township, said he’s not sure what all the fuss is about.

“It doesn’t spew lava, there’s no smoke, nobody has really paid attention to it,” he said.

Even so, many locals suspected there was a volcano nearby because of the hot springs in the area, he said.

Monsalve said they found the volcano almost by chance, as they were surveying the area for geothermal activity that might be suitable for electricity projects. When researchers began seeing large mounds of volcanic debris that couldn’t be explained they went hunting for the crater, which was partially hidden in the Florencia Forest National Park.

Vulcanology in Colombia is a relatively young field. The Geological Service was only created 30 years ago, after an eruption on the Nevado del Ruiz volcano unleashed a massive mudflow, or lahar, that buried the town of Armero and killed an estimated 25,000 people.

Since then, Colombia has identified at least 32 active volcanoes, but Calvache said she has no doubt that others are hidden in plain sight.

“All over Colombia there are people looking at volcanoes,” she said, “they just think they’re mountains.”