June/July 2008

Student Life

The fieldtrip of a lifetime

By N. Vinet and É. Roulleau

The group on the top of Pico Viejo, with the summit of El Teide in the background (Las Cañadas caldera complex, October 24, 2007). Notice the channelled a'a flows emanating from El Teide and El Piton.

The possibility of exploring the little known but still active El Teide–Pico Viejo stratovolcanoes within the Las Cañadas caldera complex on the Canary Islands was recently offered to us as an undergraduate or graduate course at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. What a great opportunity to learn more about ancient and modern volcanism, and come face-to-face with such an amazing natural wonder.

The Spanish Canary Islands represent a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa. This around 35 million-year-old archipelago is composed of seven volcanic islands — Fuerteventura, La Gomera, Gran Canaria, El Hierro, La Palma, Lanzarote and the largest, most popular, Tenerife.

The adventure

The two weeks on Tenerife were intense. To give us a representative overview of the volcanic geology, three critical areas were selected.

The first week, we stayed in the only hotel available within the Las Cañadas caldera, at an altitude of about 2,100 metres — the El Parador de Cañadas del Teide. Our stay was great, mostly because of the tranquility, the abundance of amazing meals, and the sauna and swimming pool. It took one day to adjust to the elevation and to recover from the fatigue of the journey from Quebec. We studied, in great detail, the caldera, stratovolcanoes, intracaldera floor formations (e.g. pahoehoe and a’a basaltic flows, phonolitic dome-flow complexes), lava and clastogenic flows, pyroclastic deposits (e.g. on the caldera wall during the Pico Guajara climb) and the basaltic rift-related volcanic rocks during the Pico Viejo trek. We were fortunate enough to have two well-known scientists in volcanology — Joan Martí of the Institute for Earth Sciences, CSIC Barcelona, and Joachim Gottsmann of the University of Bristol — as field guides who explained the evolution of the Las Cañadas caldera complex.

The ascent to the summit of El Teide — the highest volcano in Europe at 3,718 metres in altitude — was not as exhausting as the previous day when we hiked three to four hours to the top of Pico Viejo. Because it would have been too gruelling to climb the full ascent to the top, we took the cable-way to the summit station; only the last 200 metres to El Piton, the small cone on top of El Teide, still had to be climbed. Many of us suffered from lack of oxygen at this altitude; however, the view at the top made up for the discomfort.

Many tourists, decked out for sunbathing, arrived from the coast wearing only shorts, t-shirts and sandals. Although sunny, the temperature was about -4°C. Needless to say they didn’t stay long.

For the next three to four days, we stayed in the coastal city of El Médano and concentrated on the southeastern Bandas del Sur formations, i.e. pyroclastic deposits originating from the various episodes of the Las Cañadas caldera complex. This volcaniclastic zone shows pyroclastic outflow sheets, valley-fill deposits, and cinder and scoria cones. At the end of each day-long trip, we took full advantage of the nearby ocean.

We spent the last three days of our trip in the small historic town of Masca, built on the flanks of the Teno Massif, in the northwest sector of Tenerife. The area shows the complexity of the Miocene mafic shield during ocean island construction, which allows you to view the rift zones. Masca, with its magnificent view and matchless quietness, was probably for most, if not all of us, a prime example of paradise on earth.

Thanks for the memories!

During these two warm and sunny weeks, we saw the subaerial evolution of an oceanic island and how shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes and calderas formed and developed with time. Our perception has changed — the shear size of everything we saw was more than any of us could imagine. Had we been lucky enough to witness an eruption of the El Teide–Pico Viejo volcanoes, well, that would’ve been the icing on the cake!

Many students in the group are working on ancient deformed volcanic areas in Canada (e.g. the Abitibi greenstone belt). This type of fieldtrip is really one of the best ways for students to better understand the formation of these rocks, as it provides useful modern analogies.

We are grateful to Wulf Mueller for organizing the trip. It is important to note that without sponsorship from numerous companies, as well as the Society of Economic Geologists, most of us would not have been able to participate in this fieldtrip. Financial support is clearly essential in helping students participate in these kinds of excursions; they are instructive and indispensable to a student’s education.

Nicolas Vinet, a third-year earth sciences PhD candidate, Sciences de la Terre, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, has been passionate about volcanoes since the age of 12 or 13. In the future, he wants to enter an organization or create a company that monitors volcanoes to prevent and reduce risk, especially in less economically developed countries and/or zones marked by human poverty.

Émilie Roulleau, a third-year earth sciences PhD candidate, GEOTOP - Université du Québec à Montréal, has shared Nicolas’ passion for volcanoes since the age of 11. Recently, as a scientific guide, she began participating in the popularization of volcanology for children.

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