The Active Crater at Rincon de la Vieja volcano, Costa Rica, reaches an elevation of 1750 m and contains a warm, hyper-acidic crater lake that probably formed soon after the eruption of the Rio Blanco tephra deposit approximately 3500 years before present. The Active Crater is buttressed by volcanic ridges and older craters on all sides except the north, which dips steeply toward the Caribbean coastal plains. Acidic, above-ambient-temperature streams are found along the Active Crater's north flank at elevations between 800 and 1000 m. A geochemical survey of thermal and non-thermal waters at Rincon de la Vieja was done in 1989 to determine whether hyper-acidic fluids are leaking from the Active Crater through the north flank, affecting the composition of north-flank streams. Results of the water-chemistry survey reveal that three distinct thermal waters are found on the flanks of Rincon de la Vieja volcano: acid chloride-sulfate (ACS), acid sulfate (AS), and neutral chloride (NC) waters. The most extreme ACS water was collected from the crater lake that fills the Active Crater. Chemical analyses of the lake water reveal a hyper-acidic (pH ~ 0) chloride-sulfate brine with elevated concentrations of calcium, magnesium, aluminum, iron, manganese, copper, zinc, fluorine, and boron. The composition of the brine reflects the combined effects of magmatic degassing from a shallow magma body beneath the Active Crater, dissolution of andesitic volcanic rock, and evaporative concentration of dissolved constituents at above-ambient temperatures. Similar cation and anion enrichments are found in the above-ambient-temperature streams draining the north flank of the Active Crater. The pH of north-flank thermal waters range from 3.6 to 4.1 and chloride:sulfate ratios (1.2-1.4) that are a factor of two greater than that of the lake brine (0.60). The waters have an ACS composition that is quite different from the AS and NC thermal waters that occur along the southern flank of Rincon de la Vieja. The distribution of thermal water types at Rincon de la Vieja strongly indicates that formation of the north-flank ACS waters is not due to mixing of shallow, steam-heated AS water with deep-seated NC water. More likely, hyper-acidic brines formed in the Active Crater area are migrating through permeable zones in the volcanic strata that make up the Active Crater's north flank. Dissolution and shallow subsurface alteration of north-flank volcanoclastic material by interaction with acidic lake brine, particularly in the more permeable tephra units, could weaken the already oversteepened north flank of the Active Crater. Sector collapse of the Active Crater, with or without a volcanic eruption, represents a potential threat to human lives, property, and ecosystems at Rincon de la Vieja volcano.
Additional publication details
Leakage of active crater lake brine through the north flank at Rincon de la Vieja volcano, northwest Costa Rica, and implications for crater collapse