Should anyone ever decide to make a show called "CSI: Geology," a group of scientists studying a mysterious and rapidly inflating South American volcano have got the perfect storyline.
Researchers from several universities are essentially working as geological detectives, using a suite of tools to piece together the restive peak's past in order to understand what it is doing now, and better diagnose what may lie ahead.
It's a mystery they've yet to solve.
Uturuncu is a nearly 20,000-foot-high (6,000 meters) volcano in southwest Bolivia. Scientists recently discovered the volcano is inflating with astonishing speed.
"I call this 'volcano forensics,' because we're using so many different techniques to understand this phenomenon," said Oregon State University professor Shan de Silva, a volcanologist on the research team. [See images of the inflating volcano here.]
Researchers realized about five years ago that the area below and around Uturuncu is steadily rising — blowing up like a giant balloon under a wide disc of land some 43 miles (70 kilometers) across. Satellite data revealed the region was inflating by 1 to 2 centimeters (less than an inch) per year and had been doing so for at least 20 years, when satellite observations began.
"It's one of the fastest uplifting volcanic areas on Earth," de Silva told OurAmazingPlanet."What we're trying to do is understand why there is this rapid inflation, and from there we'll try to understand what it's going to lead to."
The peak is perched like a party hat at the center of the inflating area. "It's very circular. It's like a big bull's-eye," said Jonathan Perkins, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who recently presented work on the mountain at this year's Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis.
Scientists figured out from the inflation rate that the pocket of magma beneath the volcano was growing by about 27 cubic feet (1 cubic meter) per second.
"That's about 10 times faster than the standard rate of magma chamber growth you see for large volcanic systems," Perkins told OurAmazingPlanet.
However, no need to flee just yet, the scientists said.
"It's not a volcano that we think is going to erupt at any moment, but it certainly is interesting, because the area was thought to be essentially dead," de Silva said.
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