The Puelche Volcanic Field: extensive Pleistocene rhyolite lava flows in the Andes of central Chile

Wes Hildreth, Judy Fierstein, Estanislao Godoy, Robert E. Drake, Brad Singer


A remote volcanic field in the rugged headwaters of the Río Puelche and Río Invernada (35.8°S) constitutes the largest cluster of Quaternary rhyolite lava flows yet identified in the Andean Southern Volcanic Zone. The Puelche Volcanic Field belongs to an intra-arc belt of silicic magmatic centers that extends, at least, 140 km north-south and lies well east of the volcanic front but nonetheless considerably west of the intraplate extensional fields of basaltic and alkaline centers of pampean Argentina. The authors' mapping has distinguished one shallow intrusive mass of early Pleistocene biotite rhyodacite (70.5% SiO2), 11 eruptive units of mid-Pleistocene high-K biotite-rhyolite lava (71.3-75.6% SiO2), and 4 eruptive units of basaltic andesite (53.95-4.9% SiO2), the conduits of which cut some of the rhyolites. Basal contacts of the rhyolite lava flows (and subjacent pyroclastic precursors) are generally scree covered, but glacial erosion has exposed internal flow structures and lithologic zonation superbly. Thicknesses of individual rhyolite lava flows range from 75 m to 400 m. Feeders for several units are well exposed. Cliff-draping unconformities and intracanyon relationships among the 11 rhyolite units show that the eruptive sequence spanned at least one glacial episode that accentuated the local relief. Lack of ice-contact features suggests, however, that all or most eruptions took place during non-glacial intervals probably between 400 ka and 100 ka. Post-eruptive glacial erosion reduced the rhyolites to several non-contiguous remnants that altogether cover 83 km2 and represent a surviving volume of about 21 km3. Consideration of slopes, lava thicknesses, and paleotopography suggest that the original area and volume were each about three times greater. Phenocryst content of the rhyolites ranges from 1 to 12%, with plagioclase>>biotite>FeTi oxides in all units and amphibole conspicuous in the least silicic. The chemically varied basaltic andesites range from phenocryst-poor to phenocryst-rich, exhibiting large differences in proportions of clinopyroxene, olivine, plagioclase, and xenocrystic quartz. Compositional bimodality of the volcanic field is striking, there being no Quaternary eruptive units having SiO2 contents between 55 and 70%. Major and trace element compositions of the mafic and silicic rocks are nonetheless typical of continental-margin arc suites, not of intracontinental suites. The lack of intermediate eruptive units and the differences between the mafic and rhyolitic lavas in Sr-isotope composition suggest that the rhyolites fractionated from a hybrid parent rather than continuously from basaltic magma. The rhyolites may contain larger contributions of upper-crustal partial melts than do silicic products of the volcanic-front centers 30 km to the west.

How to cite this article Hildreth, W.; Fierstein, J.; Godoy, E.; Drake, R.; Singer, B. 1999, The Puelche Volcanic Field: extensive Pleistocene rhyolite lava flows in the Andes of central Chile. Revista Geológica de Chile 26 (2) : 275-309. .