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The Geology of Aconcagua

By Marieke Dechesne

Aconcagua, with its 6,962 m above sealevel is impressively higher than its surroundings, and is even the highest mountain outside the Himalayas. The geologic explanation for this is found deep below the surface. Aconcagua is part of the Cordillera Principal, the backbone of the Andes Mountains, which are the result of subduction of the oceanic Nazca Plate under the South American continent. Typically, when an oceanic plate collides with another plate, the oceanic plate gets pushed under, because its material is usually denser relative to its surroundings. The oceanic plate will melt at depth and when the magma heats up it rises back to the surface to form volcanoes. A striking observation can be made when looking at a map between 28ο and 33 o latitude in Argentina and Chile: there are no active volcanoes in this zone! It appears from earthquake observations that reveal the depths of the oceanic plates that the oceanic Nazca plate is not dipping under the continent as steeply under the Aconcagua region, than just south of it (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Block Diagrams illustrating that the angle of subduction is a lot shallower in the Aconcagua region (block diagram A) than to the south near Tupungato (still an active volcano) in diagram B. The shallow angle of subduction caused cessation of volcanism and resulted in thrust faulting. The map on the bottom right shows with a hatched area the zone without active volcanism (Ramos, 1996).

Volcanic History

Aconcagua used to be a volcano, when the oceanic plate dipped at a higher angle under the continent in this region as well. However, sometime in the Miocene, about 10-8 million years ago, the subduction angle started to decrease resulting in a stop of the melting and more horizontal stresses between the oceanic plate and the continent, causing the thrust faults that lifted Aconcagua up off its volcanic root.

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Figure 2: Geologic Cross Section from west (A) to east (B) through the Confluencia base camp of the Aconcagua Normal Route, showing the complex structural nature below the base of Aconcagua, especially note the extensive thrust faults that lifted Aconcagua up (from Ramos et al., 1996).

The Aconcagua Region has not always been this high in geologic times. Aconcagua, used to be an active stratovolcano (from the Late Cretacious or Early Paleocene through the Miocene), and consisted of several volcanic complexes, on the edge of a basin with a shallow sea. The rocks found on Aconcagua’s flanks are all volcanic and consist of lavas, breccias and pyroclastics. The shallow marine basin had already formed earlier (Triassic), even before Aconcagua arose as a volcano. However, volcanism has been present in this region for as long as this basin was around and volcanic deposits interfinger with marine deposits throughout the sequence. The colorful greenish, blueish and grey deposits that can be seen in the Horcones Valley and south of Puente Del Inca, are carbonates, limestones, turbidites and evaporates that filled this basin. The red colored rocks are intrusions, cinder deposits and conglomerates of volcanic origin.

Figure 3a (above): Schematic sketch of the Mesozoic basin fill and associated formations when Aconcagua was an active volcanic complex (Ramos et al. 1996). Figure 3b (Right): Upper Jurassic marine deposits seen from the Confluencia base camp in 2006.

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More recent deposits are the glacial moraines that are found all along the Normal Route as far down as our starting point, Puente del Inca, which appears to be the farthest extent that the glaciers have reached in the much colder Pleistocene times. Looking at where the glaciers are now (the first and lowest one will be encountered at the Confluencia base camp) one can observe that they have retreated significantly. Landslides are also very common in this steep and tectonically active terrain.

Glacial History

While drinking wine in Mendoza after our climb, another thing to ponder is why the Malbec wine tastes so good. It is not only the fact that you are drinking melting water from the glaciers of Aconcagua, but also because of the special ground the grapes are grown on. This ground, called Cuyania, has mysteriously traveled as its own microcontinent from a position where it used to be the other side of the Ouachita Embayment, south of the Appalachian platform in the current US! Cuyania started to travel after the Mid- to Late- Ordovician via plate tectonics to Argentina, where it was sutured to the rocks near Mendoza at the end of the Devonian at about 465 million years ago (Ramos 1996 and 2004).

Final Thoughts

References Darwin, C. 1846 Geological Observations in South America, London. Bonorino, F. G., 1950. Geologic Cross-Section of the Cordillera de los Andes at about parallel 33° L.S. (Argentina - Chile). Geological Society of America Bulletin 61;17-26 Ramos, V.A. 2004. Cuyania, An Exotic Block to Gondwana: Review of a Historical Success and the Present Problems. Gondwana Research, Volume 7, Issue 4, pages 1009 – 1026. Ramos, V.A., et al., 1996. Geologia De La Region Aconcagua, Provinces de San Juan y Mendoza. Subsecretaria de Mineria de La Nacion. Direccion National del Servicio Geologico, Annales 24 (1): 1-8, Buenos Aires 510 pages.

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