Impacts of acid emissions from Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia, on selected terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems

Roderic A. Parnell, Kelly J. Burke

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21 Scopus citations


Emissions of acidic gases and thermal waters from Nevado del Ruiz volcano have recently increased in concert with the November 13, 1985 eruption. This study examines the downwind and downstream effects of these emissions on alpine ecosystems high on the slopes of the volcano (4100 m) and on coffee plantations at lower elevations (< 2000 m) and greater distances from the active vent (> 30 km). Samples of bulk deposition, rain, soils, soil solutions, and streams were collected over a six-month period (January-July, 1987) to examine the impacts of this volcanogenic acidity. Bulk deposition falling on the higher slopes of the volcano is usually acidified; however, deposition reaching the distal coffee plantations seldom is acidic. The sources of the acids are hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide in the plume of the volcano. Although sulfur dioxide is by far the more abundant gas, hydrogen chloride is most responsible for acidification of rain falling on the slopes of the volcano. With distance from the vent, the chloride/sulfate ratio drops exponentially. The only major influence on regional precipitation chemistry in addition to the volcano appears to be land-use-related activities around the coffee plantations. Deposition on these areas is enriched by an order of magnitude in nitrate and base cations, compared to all other stations. Throughfall chemistry in the coffee plantations shows a dramatic response to occasional acid-rain events. A base-leaching process on coffee plant leaves is triggered by acid rain. For each equivalent of hydrogen ion in rain on the leaf surface, over 23 equivalents of potassium ion are leached from the leaf. In spite of this dramatic response by the vegetation, the plantation soils appear relatively unaffected by acidic deposition. In contrast, the alpine soils on the volcano exhibit low pHs, high sulfate and chloride concentrations in soil solutions, and high extractable sulfate concentrations. All of these factors indicate that these soils have undergone significant acid loading. While the deposition of the region is acidified by hydrogen chloride, the streams flowing off the volcano are apparently acidified by sulfuric acid in thermal waters discharging into the streams. The acidity of these streams decreases downstream, while the silica concentrations increase downstream. The composition of stream water is most influenced by thermal-water discharges as well as equilibrium dissolution of amorphous silica glass and non-equilibrium leaching of unweathered ash. The impacts of acid gases and thermal water released from the volcano appear to be restricted to ecosystems on the slope of the volcano. The only impact of Nevado del Ruiz on surrounding coffee plantations appears to be potassium leaching of coffee leaves from occasional acid-deposition events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-88
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 30 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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