Most people associate the Galapagos Islands with amazing birds & animals, but the good news for visitors is that Galapagos is so much more than just a wildlife destination – volcanoes, lunar landscapes & geology also play a bit part in the tour experience!
Volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands shaped the landscape and created the archipelago. Out of 21 Galapagos volcanoes, 13 are still active, making the islands one of the most active hotspots on the planet.
Keep reading for a guide to how the islands were formed and the effect that recent volcanic eruptions have had on the islands and their creatures.
The volcanic origins of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands were formed by eruptions of underwater volcanoes over millions of years until they broke the sea’s surface. The Galapagos Hotspot sits 3000 ft. under the water in the western part of the archipelago. Cracks in the ocean floor allowed molten lava from the earth’s core to escape. As the earth’s plates shifted, the older island moved away from the hotspot and their volcanoes became extinct.
The oldest of the islands are South Plaza (4.2 million years) and Espanola(3.2 million years.) The youngest island is Isabela, which is roughly 0.7 million years old.
Different types of volcano and lava flows found at Galapagos
There are two kinds of volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands. The western islands tend to have large volcanoes with deep calderas, while the majority of those found in the east are smaller shield volcanoes. Shield volcanoes have gentle slopes and their lava has a low viscosity making it flow easier and covering a lot of ground.
There are two kinds of lava flows in the islands, a’a, and pahoehoe. A’a is sharp and brittle while pahoehoe is smooth and ropy in texture. On any Galapagos tour, you will be able to see clear examples of both types.
How to see the Galapagos Volcanoes for Yourself
Volcanic activity in the Galapagos is everywhere you look. Lava fields dot the landscape and active and extinct volcanoes are found on both inhabited and uninhabited islands.
Here are some of the best sites to observe Galapagos volcanic activity:
Sierra Negra / Volcan Chico
The Sierra Negra shield volcano and Volcan Chico parasite volcano on Isabela Island are a popular hike for those who want an active adventure. The trek takes you to the rim of the giant Sierra Negra caldera, where you can peer inside the crater to see evidence of old lava flows. Continuing to Volcan Chico where different shades of lava lend an otherworldly outlook on the island.
Galapagos Lava tunnels & tubes
There are a few places in the islands where you can explore below ground in lava tunnels. Santa Cruz, Floreana, and Isabela Islands have areas that lead to expansive tubes that reveal the volcanic origins of the islands. The tunnels were formed when the top layer of lava solidified while the molten lava underneath kept flowing. Some of the lava tunnels are so large that visitors can walk into them, a good example is on Santa Cruz highlands.
Cruise between Isabela & Fernandina Islands
Isabela and Fernandina Islands are the two most active spots for volcanoes in the islands. If your cruise itinerary takes you to the western side of Isabela, then be prepared for an unforgettable day with stunning volcano views on all sides. For the lucky few you may even find yourself in the hot seat when eruptions occur, with a front-row seat to see molten lava flows extending to the sea.
Twin craters (Los Gemelos)
Los Gemelos or the Twin Craters are a pair of massive collapsed lava pits in the highlands of Santa Cruz. The craters are a great place to see Darwin’s finches while hiking the rims amid forested woodlands.
Is it safe to visit Galapagos Islands volcanoes?
While other volcanoes around the world can pose threats, specifically the most recent eruption in New Zealand, the volcanoes in the Galapagos are constantly monitored. When events do happen, the Galapagos National Park takes precautions by altering routes or roping off areas that could be harmful to travelers.
Recent Galapagos Eruptions and their Effects on the Islands
Recent eruptions include Sierra Negra on Isabela Island and La Cumbre on Fernandina Island in 2018 and Wolf volcano on Isabela Island in 2015.
Sierra Negra Volcano Eruption (2018)
Sierra Negra on Isabela is one of the six Galapagos volcanoes that formed the island-all but the Ecuador volcano are still active. Historically, the eruptions of these shield volcanoes caused the evolution of the Galapagos tortoises on the island. Eruptions caused five different types of tortoise to evolve-divided by the geographic separation caused by lava flows the tortoise’s population became isolated and evolved depending on the terrain and food supply that each group could find.
The Sierra Negra volcano’s volcanic caldera is the second largest in the world, 6 miles in diameter and 300 ft. deep. Strong earthquakes in the Galapagos opened up fissures in 2018 on the volcano’s flanks and lava flowed down into the sea. The most obvious effects of the eruption were changes to the physical landscape. Among the positive effects are that new lava flows cooled by the ocean create new nesting areas for creatures like the Galapagos penguin.
La Cumbre Volcano Eruption (2018)
La Cumbre Volcano on Fernandina Island is the youngest and most active Galapagos volcano. Continued eruptions cause dramatic changes to the landscape and also raise concerns for shore animals like sea lions and marine iguanas, while adventurous land iguanas risk everything to nest and lay eggs inside the crater rim to take advantage of the warmer environment. The Galapagos National Park monitors these events but rarely interferes as the eruptions are considered part of the natural cycle of the archipelago.
Wolf Volcano Eruption (2015)
When Wolf erupted in 2015, experts and naturalists were concerned for the safety of the Galapagos pink iguana, only found on the flanks of the volcano, and the giant tortoise population which was part of a project to restore the creatures to healthy population size. As luck would have it, lava flows skipped the areas where both species live while creating amazing images at night as the molten rock flowed to the sea.
Volcanoes will shape the future of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are still forming around the eruptions on the archipelago. Over the next thousands of years, there will be radical changes in the landscapes and new islands forming. These events will have an impact on the wildlife and human population, but as the past has proven, adaptions will continue, species will evolve, and life will go on.
For more information about exploring the Galapagos Islands and discovering the volcanoes that created them, contact a member of our team.