Galapagos islands volcanoes have an amazing story to tell. An explosive story of origin and change. An unpredictable tale that continues to shape the islands today. Millions of years of violent eruptions created the Galapagos islands. Today, volcanic eruptions still occur every few years, changing landscapes and habitats over and over again. The good news for visitors is that Galapagos islands volcanoes have a big part to play in your visit. Imagine huge smouldering calderas, unreal lunar landscapes, and jet black lava flows. Learn about geology through first hand experience. Lucky tourists might even witness a live volcano eruption.
The Galapagos hotspot is one of the most volcanically active areas on the planet. Today, there are 21 Galapagos islands volcanoes in total, 13 of which are still active. For visitors, these remarkable volcanic landscapes make for unforgettable photos and memories.
Read on for everything you need to know about Galapagos islands volcanoes. How did the Galapagos islands form? When were the last Galapagos volcano eruptions? Where are the best volcanic sites to visit at Galapagos today?
How did the galapagos islands form?
The Galapagos Islands are of volcanic origin. They were formed by repeated underwater volcanic eruptions taking place over millions of years. All of the action takes place at the famous Galapagos hotspot.
What is the Galapagos hotspot? A volcanic hotspot is a an area in the earth's mantle where hot magma is able to push through cracks in the crust to cause volcanic eruptions. Hawaii and the Galapagos islands are two excellent examples of volcanic hotspots. The Galapagos Hotspot sits 3000 ft. under the ocean, and is believed to be over 20 million years old. It is located close to the current day location of Fernandina island. Here, cumulative layers of lava form on top of one another. This, together with Seismic uplift, pushes the Galapagos volcanoes up until they emerge from beneath the sea to form islands.
How can we explain the distribution of Galapagos islands and volcanoes today? All of the islands we see at Galapagos were born of fire at the site of the Galapagos hotspot. As the earth’s plates shifted, the older islands moved away from the hotspot in an easterly direction. As they aged and moved away from the hotspot magma source, their volcanoes became extinct. Meanwhile over the hotspot in the west, new islands continue forming. This process has repeated over millions of years to form the archipelago as we know it today. The islands in the east are the eldest, and are now slowly eroding and dying, eventually to submerge back into the sea. The islands to the west, Fernandina and Islabela, are still very active, and continue in the process of change. They too eventually will drift to the east, and new islands will emerge.
When did the Galapagos islands form?
The Galapagos islands formed over millions of years. The oldest of the islands are South Plazas (4.2 million years) and Espanola (3.2 million years). The youngest islands are Fernandina and Isabela, which are less than 1 million years old.
This is of course a highly simplified version of events, explaining the basics of the volcanic origin of the Galapagos islands.
Different Types of Galapagos Islands Volcanoes & Lava Flows
There are two different types of Galapagos volcano: 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.
Two types of lava flow can be found 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 visit the best Galapagos Volcano sites for Yourself?
Volcanic landscapes at Galapagos are everywhere you look. Lava fields dot the landscape, volcanic craters are found on both inhabited and uninhabited islands. Galapagos birds, animals and plants have made remarkable adaptations to survive in this harsh environment. Keep reading for information about the best Galapagos islands volcanoes to visit.
Sierra Negra & Volcan Chico (Isabela island)
Sierra Negra Volcano is the big daddy of Galapagos island volcanoes. Definitely a worthwhile day tour from Puerto Villamil on Isabela island. Sierra Negra is an active shield volcano, and one of the largest calderas in the world. The crater circumference measures a huge 30km (19miles), a fact that can really be fully appreciated from the Sierra Negra viewpoint. Inside the crater historic lava flows cover the entire floor. Visitors can also see Volcan Chico, a smaller parasite volcano with impressive lunar landscapes. Sierra Negra can be visited as a day hike from Puerto Villamil. A dirt trail leads up to the crater rim of the giant Sierra Negra caldera, with great views peering inside. The immense size alone takes your breath away. The trail then continues onto Volcan Chico, for a more up close look at the otherwordly volcanic landscape.
Galapagos Lava tunnels & tubes
Lava tunnels are underground tubular caves formed by ancient lave flows. Today, visitors can head inside with a torch to explore. Galapagos lava tunnels were formed when the top layer of a lava flow solidified, while the molten lava beaneath continued to flow. There are a various places at Galapagos to explore below ground in these fabulous tunnels. Santa Cruz, Floreana, and Isabela Islands all offer easy access to tunnels. In particular, Santa Cruz highlands lave tunnels are well worth a visit.
The Bolivar Channel (between Isabela & Fernandina Islands)
Isabela and Fernandina Islands are the two most active spots for Galapagos islands volcanoes. If your cruise itinerary includes a visit to the western islands, then be prepared for unforgettable and stunning volcano views on all sides. If you are really lucky then you might even find yourself in the hot seat witnessing an eruption. A front-row seat to see molten lava flows extending to the sea.
Twin craters (Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz island)
Los Gemelos or the Twin Craters are a pair of collapsed lava pits in the highlands of Santa Cruz. The craters themselves are impressive, and this is also a great place to spot Darwin’s finches while hiking the rims amid forested woodlands.
Is it Safe to Visit Galapagos Islands Volcanoes?
Without doubt volcanoes around the world need to be treated with respect and taken seriously. The powers of the natural world are certainly not to be messed with. Galapagos islands volcanoes are constantly monitored by volcanologists. If increased volcanic activity is expected then the Galapagos National Park Authority take all necessary precautions. If an area is deemed to be unsafe, then it will be temporarily closed off to tourism. All recent eruptions have fortunately been small scale, and provided a wonderful spectacle for passing cruise ships.
Recent Galapagos Eruptions and their Effects on the Islands
Recent eruptions of Galapagos islands volcanoes include: Sierra Negra on Isabela Island and La Cumbre on Fernandina Island in 2018 and Wolf volcano on Isabela Island in 2015. Read on for more information about each eruption.
2018 Sierra Negra Volcano Eruption
Sierra Negra on Isabela is one of the six Galapagos volcanoes that formed Isabela island and is still very active. Historically, the eruptions of these shield volcanoes caused the unique evolution of 5 different types of Galapagos tortoises on the island. Isolated from one another by lava flows, each tortoise population evolved differently depending on the terrain and food supply that each group could find.
Earthquakes in the Galapagos opened up fissures in 2018 on Sierra Negra 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.
2018 La Cumbre Volcano Eruption
La Cumbre Volcano on Fernandina Island is the youngest and most active Galapagos islands volcano. Continued eruptions cause dramatic changes to the landscape and also raise concerns for shore animals like sea lions and marine iguanas. Meanwhile adventurous land iguanas risk everything to nest and lay eggs inside the crater rim, taking 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.
2015 Wolf Volcano Eruption
When Wolf Volcano erupted in 2015, experts and naturalists were concerned for the safety of the Galapagos pink iguana. This unique land iguana population are only found on the flanks of this volcano, so a fiery eruption could cause devastation. Similarly, the repopulated Wolf Volcano giant tortoise population could be in threat. 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 down to the sea.
Galapagos Islands Volcanoes Will Continue to Shape the Future of the Archipelago
New eruptions still occur at the highly active Galapagos hotspot. As Fernandina ages and drifts to the east, new islands will form. The next million years will therefore see changes in the Galapagos landscape and map. We won't be here to witness it ourselves, but these volcanic changes will have an impact on the wildlife and human population of the future. But as the past has proven, we will contiue to adapt, species will evolve, and life will inevitably go on.
Galapagos Geology: More Details about Hotspots
While most volcanic eruptions are caused by two tectonic plates rubbing together, Galapagos volcanoes are a little different. Galapagos eruptions are caused by a volcanic hot spot. That is, an area of the earth’s mantle where magma escapes from the layers in flux below the lithosphere.
The Nasca Plate moves east over the hotspot. Islands are formed after lava builds up under the sea. Successive eruptions create new layers on top of one another, eventually breakings the surface. In the past decade, new volcanic islands have been formed in this same way off of the coast of Russia and Japan. Hawaii is another example of islands being formed by hotspot eruptions.
The Galapagos islands are among the most volcanically active on Earth. Sierra Negra and Wolf volcanoes on Isabela Island have both erupted within the last fifteen years. La Cumbre Volcano on the neighboring Fernandina Island also became active once again in 2017.
The result of volcanic eruptions has created a maze of volcanic rock formations. These range from the surreal lunar terrain of Bartolome Island, to lava bridges and pools of Los Tuneles (Isabela), and the ropey strands of lava flows on Santiago Island. This natural architecture has contributed greatly to Galapagos habitats, and the diversity of wildlife that reside on each island.
We can also see the full lifecycle of a volcano at Galapagos. The hotspot gives birth to new volcanoes and islands. They drift east with the Nazca plate movements. As islands move farther away from the hotspot, the magma feeding the volcanoes dwindles, and they become extinct. Wind and sea then cause erosion, calderas start to crumble, and eventually the islands disappear back under the sea. Tourists can also witness the lifecycle of vegetation on the islands. The younger islands are pure lava rock, without soil. Only the hardiest of plants, like the pioneer cactus on Fernandina, can grab a footing to grow. As islands grow older, and move away from the hotspot, soil begins to form, and more plants can colonise. Mature islands generally have the largest biodiversity of plants. Also, islands that had large and tall volcanoes today have a greater habitat range. The highlands of Santa Cruz are a fine example - very lush vegetation is able to grow, and provide a home to Darwin's Finches, giant tortoises and other species.
When old Galapagos volcano craters partially collapse, water can find its way in. This can create protected pools for wildlife, and popular snorkeling spots. The Devil’s Crown close to Floreana island is the best example. Here, a partially submerged and eroded volcanic crater is one of the top Galapagos snorkel sites to see reef shark, rays and colorful fish. Darwin Bay on Genovesa island is another case. Here the waters are rich in nutrients, and even hammerhead sharks prowl for food.
The waters right across the Galapagos Marine Reserve are relatively shallow. Underwater there is a large lava plateau called the Galapagos Platform. This was formed by underwater lava flows over millions of years, and creates the shallow-water depth of 360 to 900meters.
How many volcanoes are in the Galapagos islands?
There are 21 emergent Galapagos islands volcanoes today, 13 of which are still active. The Galapagos island chain is still very young, so more islands should be expected in the future. Below is a list of Galapagos islands that have already been formed by the volcanic hotspot, together with their relative age.
- Fernandina Island- approximately 700,000 years old – La Cumbre Volcano
- Darwin Island- approximately 700,000 years old
- Genovesa Island- approximately 700,000 years old- Genovesa Volcano
- Isabela Island- approximately 700,000 years old – Wolf, Cerro Azul, Sierra Negra, Alcedo, Darwin, Ecuador volcanoes
- Marchena Island- approximately 700,000 years old – Marchena volcano
- Santiago Island -750,000 years old- Santiago volcano
- Balta Island- 7 – 1.5 million years old- Formed by a volcanic uplift from the seafloor.
- Floreana Island- 7 – 1.5 million – Floreana volcano, Devil’s Crown
- Pinzon Island- 7 – 1.5 million- Pinzon volcano
- Rabida Island- 7 – 1.5 million – Rabida volcano
- Santa Cruz Island- 7 – 1.5 million – Santa Cruz volcano
- Wolf Island-0.7 – 1.5 million years – Wolf volcano-submerged
- North Seymour Island-2 million years old – Created by a seismic seafloor uplift
- San Cristobal Island-2.4 million years old
- Santa Fe Island- 2.7 million years old – Santa Fe volcano
- South Plaza Island-3.2 million years old – Formed by lava uplifts
- Española Island-3.2 million years old – Española volcano
In conclusion, The Galapagos islands would not exist today without the volcanic activity of the Galapagos hotspot. The archipelago was formed by magma, and Galapagos islands volcanoes remain very active today. It really is remarkable to see this with your eyes first hand. Visitors today can see active craters, islands formed by volcanoes, and old lava flows. It also brings to life quite how incredible it is that life found its way to these remote islands. Islands emerged from the sea, plants grew on barren rocks, birds & animals arrived and adpated to live here. Life is irrepressible, and somehow finds a way to adapt and survive. Thanks to Galapagos islands volcanoes the future is bright.
For more information about exploring the Galapagos Islands and discovering the volcanoes that created them, contact a member of our team.