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Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
287
DOI: 10.4408/IJEGE.2013-06.B-26
LARGE VOLUME LANDSLIDES IN THE CENTRAL ANDES OF CHILE
AND ARGENTINA (32º-34ºS) AND RELATED HAZARDS
S
ergio
A. S
epúlvedA
(*)
& S
tellA
M. M
oreirAS
(**)
(*)
Universidad de Chile - Departamento de Geología - Santiago, Chile
(**)
CoNiCet – iANiglA (CCt) - Mendoza, Argentina
tal cities located at the foothills of mountain ranges
at both sides of the Central Andes. Such is the case of
Santiago (Chile) and Mendoza (Argentina) with about
6 and 1.5 million inhabitants, respectively (Fig. 1). Less
populated villages are installed in the mountainous en-
vironment, which may have reduced the probable im-
pact of landslides in the past. Historical damages have
been mainly reported for communication belts such
as the Transandino railway and the international road
N°7 between both countries (M
oreirAS
& C
oroNAto
,
2010). However, a progressive increase of the region
vulnerability is denoted as a consequence of pressure
in growing population with its inevitable urbanization
ABSTRACT
Large landslides are a common geomorphological
feature of the Central Andes of Chile and Argentina. The
highlands usually present landslide relicts of different
types and volumes located in glacial valleys, including
outsized rock slides and avalanches of millions of cubic
metres up to cubic kilometres of volume. Even though
the main trigger mechanisms of these events are not
clear yet, being mostly interpreted as seismic in Chile
and ambiguously climatic or seismic in Argentina, there
is no doubt about their key role in the geomorphological
evolution of Central Andes. Besides the direct hazard
of landsliding in slope areas and surroundings, usually
with little population, large volume landslides can also
induce indirect hazards far away from the landslide
original site, due to rock avalanches and/or debris flows,
reaching inhabited places and threatening critical facili-
ties for large cities such as Santiago or Mendoza. Land-
slide dams have formed lakes of different size, which
slopes are susceptible to rock avalanches that may fall
into the lakes producing catastrophic flooding down-
stream due to dam overtopping or failure. Examples
of historic events in the Central Andes are revised and
a preliminary description of hazards in the study area
along with identification of necessary research for full
hazard and risk assessment are presented.
INTRODUCTION
Demographic situation of Central Andes show an
irregular population distribution concentrated in capi-
Fig. 1 - Hypsometric map of the Central Andes at
32º-34º with large volume landslide inventory
(black polygons) (modified from M
oreiras
&
s
epúlveda
, 2013)
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S.A. SEPÚLVEDA & S.M. MOREIRAS
288
International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
during the Gondwanides orogeny in the Late Paleo-
zoic to early Mesozoic, including some andesitic, gra-
nitic and rhyolitic subvolcanic rocks (r
AMoS
et alii,
1996). Older marine and foreland basin sedimentary
Paleozoic rocks crop out in the Precordillera range, an
Andean thrust-and-fold belt sequence with a typical
thin-skinned structure.
Between 28-33°S, this segment of the Central An-
des has a distinctive, flat slab plate tectonic setting,
while south of 33º there is a normal subduction with
volcanic activity. The present convergence rate be-
tween the subducted Nazca plate and the South Amer-
ican plate averages about 6-7 cm per year (K
hArAzAde
& K
lotz
, 2003), and a thrust tectonics predominates
in the region since about 22 Ma (p
ilger
, 1984; r
AMoS
,
1988). As a consequence of progressively Orogen
front migration towards to the east, main active fault-
ing is recorded in the eastern Andes foothill at present,
characterised by an intense neotectonic activity (C
oS
-
tA
et alii, 2000; M
oreirAS
& S
epúlvedA
, 2013).
LARGE VOLUME LANDSLIDE INVEN-
TORY AND CHRONOLOGY
M
oreirAS
& S
epúlvedA
(2013) revised a series of
previous publications and together with new mapping
produced a large-volume landslide inventory for this
region (Fig. 1). At least 650 km
2
of this region are af-
fected by megalandslides. They are concentrated in
the Main and Frontal ranges, while they are not rec-
ognized in the Coastal Cordillera and only a few in
the Precordillera (M
oreirAS
& S
epúlvedA
2013). The
large volume landslides are of different types, usually
located in glacial valleys, including large rock slides
and rock avalanches of volumes up to some cubic
kilometres. Most of these geoforms were initially
described as glacial moraines, being reinterpreted as
mass movements since the eighties (e.g. A
bele
, 1984;
M
oreirAS
& S
epúlvedA
, 2013 and references therein).
There are still a large number of deposits that have
not been studied in detail to assure their glacial or
landslide origin. In some cases, recent studies suggest
that some of giant deposits, such as the Mesón Alto
deposit in the Yeso valley in Chile, are of a polyge-
netic nature, with rock avalanches covering moraine
deposits (d
eCKArt
et alii, 2013). Likewise, the La
Engorda deposit described ambiguously as a moraine
(t
hiele
, 1980 ) and then as a huge Holocene landslide
(A
NtiNAo
, 2008; A
NtiNAo
& g
oSSe
, 2009) have been
combined with development of tourist activities and
further facilities. Many water reservoirs have been built
in the mountain environment in last decades for water
supply and electric power generation for main cities
and mining activities. These structures are also used for
controlling river floods and irrigation of productive oa-
sis on the arid eastern side of the Andes.
Increasing vulnerability of the study area makes
fundamental to identify and understand the behaviour
of landslides and their main triggering mechanisms
in the past, to prevent Andean communities that may
be affected in downstream valleys as it is well-known
that rock avalanches or huge landslides could reach
great distances. In this paper we summarize the state
of the art about large volume in the Andes at 32°-34°S,
revise some examples of historic events in the Central
Andes are revised and discuss on the related hazards
that Andean communities may face in the future.
LARGE VOLUME LANDSLIDES IN THE
STUDY AREA
GEOLOGICAL AND GEOMORPHOLOGICAL
SETTING
The Central Andes at the latitude of the study area
(32-34º S), are composed of different morphostruc-
tural and geological provinces. They are (from west
to east) the Coastal Range, the Main Range, the Fron-
tal Range and the Precordillera (Fig. 1). The Coastal
Range is mainly formed by Paleozoic and Cenozoic
intrusive bodies and volcanosedimentary Mesozoic
and Cenozoic rocks covered by Pliocene-Quaternary
alluvium (g
ANA
et alii, 1996; W
All
et alii, 1996, 1999;
S
elléS
& g
ANA
, 2001). The Main Range (t
hiele
,
1980; r
AMoS
, 1996; W
All
et alii, 1999; F
oCK
, 2005) is
formed by Eocene to Miocene volcanic rocks of Farel-
lones and Abanico formations in Chile, intruded by
Miocene granitic bodies, and the Aconcagua volcanic
complex in Argentina. These rocks overlay Jurassic
and Cretaceous marine and volcaniclastic rocks in
Chile, which correlate with the Mendoza Group in
the Argentinean side. The border area presents the
current volcanic arc from about the 33ºS southward,
including some active volcanoes. Structurally, this
sector was developed by thin-skinned structures such
as the Aconcagua fold and thrust belt (AFTB) (r
AMoS
et alii, 1996), some of which present seismic activ-
ity (S
epúlvedA
et alii, 2008). The Frontal Cordillera is
composed of volcanic and sedimentary units formed
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LARGE VOLUME LANDSLIDES IN THE CENTRAL ANDES OF CHILE AND ARGENTINA (32º-34ºS) AND RELATED HAZARDS
Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
289
Meanwhile, rock falls and debris flows have affected
historically mountain roads in Argentina interrupt-
ing vehicles traffic, damaging infrastructure and re-
sulting in some fatalities. First fatality was reported
in 1790 when a fallen block caused the death of the
muleteer, Santiago Molina, in Cortaderas site located
in the Mendoza river valley (M
oreirAS
& C
oroNAto
,
2010). The international road Nº 7 that anciently con-
nects Mendoza (Argentina) with Santiago (Chile) runs
along this valley. In 1976 a collapse fell on a car kill-
ing 2 tourists (M
oreirAS
, 2004). Debris flows resulting
on fatalities in mountain roads in both countries are
common. Instead, megalandslides are extreme events
of high magnitude - low frequency that are usually not
registered in the historic record of a community but
are present in the natural, geological record of the area
where it is emplaced. In such cases, the short-term,
historical records do not reflect the long-term behav-
iour of a hazard, because the relationship between
magnitude and frequency changes over time, concept
known as non-stationarity (N
ott
, 2006). The conse-
quence of the occurrence of such extreme events can
be catastrophic, causing disasters of very high social
impact. In our study area and neighbour regions of the
central Andes there are a few cases of historic events
that can show some effects of large volume landslides,
which must be considered along with geological study
of prehistoric events for a correct hazard assessment.
In Chile, recent examples are two landslides
triggered by the 1958 earthquake and the 1987 Par-
raguirre landslide and debris flow. On the 4
th
of Sep-
tember 1958, a sequence of 3 shallow crustal earth-
quakes of magnitude between 6.3 and 6.9 (l
oMNitz
,
1960; A
lvArAdo
et alii, 2008) affected the Andean
Main Cordillera around the confluence of the Yeso,
Volcán and Maipo rivers. The 1958 earthquakes trig-
gered an important number of landslides, particularly
rock falls, and some larger movements, including
two soil slumps known as Las Cortaderas landslide
(15-20x10
6
m
3
, Fig. 2), located in the Yeso Valley,
and El Manzanito landslide (4
x
10
6
m
3
) located in the
Maipo Valley, about 9 km north and 6 km south of
the main shock epicentre, respectively (S
epúlvedA
et
alii, 2008). The first destroyed the road to the Yeso
dam and blocked the Yeso river, forming a small lake
that lasted for a few years, until the natural dam was
broken by the river (b
orde
, 1966), while the second
destroyed a hydroelectric channel that carried water
recently interpreted as several rock avalanches over
two glacial events (g
oNzAlez
, 2010; M
oreirAS
et alii,
2012).
A Pleistocene age was generally assumed for the
large landslides in this portion of the Central Andes.
However, recent studies mainly based on radiocarbon
and cosmogenic datings reveal younger ages, most of
them ranging from about 4 ky to 15 ky (M
oreirAS
&
S
epúlvedA
, 2013 and references therein). Megaland-
slides older than Late Pleistocene are rare, commonly,
assigned from relative ages based on stratigraphy or
tephrochronology.
Hypotheses about triggering mechanisms of large
landslides vary between the Chilean and Argentinean
Andes. Whereas a seismic cause is proposed for most
events in the Chilean side, palaeo-climate is assumed as
the main conditioning factor for Argentinean landslides
(M
oreirAS
& S
epúlvedA
, 2013). The landslide distribu-
tion usually relates to traces of regional faults and seis-
mic activity has been detected in the AFTB, although
actual neotectonic activity of these faults has not been
investigated in depth. Scarcity of very large volume
failures in the highlands during historic large subduc-
tion earthquakes against occurrence of such failures
during shallow earthquakes in the study area and south-
ern Chile reinforce the hypothesis of shallow seismic
sources as the most likely origin of earthquake-induced
landslides in the area (S
epúlvedA
et alii, 2008, 2010,
2012). Meanwhile, the tentative role of debuttressing
and isostatic rebounding after glacier retreat may be
correlated with a Holocene age of a majority of palaeo-
landslides, although some ages seem to be too young to
attribute this mechanism as a main cause of the failures
(p
oSChiNger
, 2002; M
oreirAS
& S
epúlvedA
, 2013).
HISTORIC LANDSLIDES AND POTEN-
TIAL LANDSLIDE AREAS
The hazards related to large volume landslides
in the Central Andes have not been studied in depth,
except by a few exceptions (M
oreirAS
, 2004, 2005;
S
tuMpF
, 2008; M
oreirAS
2009; F
Auqué
et alii, 2009a,
2009b; W
elKNer
et alii, 2010). For instance, in the
Chilean side, most attention have been paid to de-
bris flows induced by heavy rainfall, commonly as-
sociated to El Niño events (S
epúlvedA
et alii, 2006),
which are more frequent and have badly affected ur-
ban areas in Santiago, the last in 1993 killing about
30 people (N
ArANjo
& v
ArelA
, 1996; h
AuSer
, 2000).
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S.A. SEPÚLVEDA & S.M. MOREIRAS
290
International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
slide evolved into a rock avalanche that fell on top of
rock glaciers at the valley bottom, becaming a debris
flow due to incorporation of snow, ice and sediments,
with an estimated total volume of 15x10
6
m
3
. The flow
travelled over 50 km with frontal waves 20-30 m high,
killing at least 37 people and destroying a power plant
under constructions and seriously damaging a second
one (h
AuSer
, 2002). The proposed cause for this event
is a combination of quick snowmelt of a large amount
of snow (in a year with El Niño), chemical weathering
of the sedimentary rocks and deglaciation. Despite the
resulting debris flow transported very large boulders
to the Queltehues power station. The two events were
studied by S
epúlvedA
et alii (2008), who carried out
geotechnical back-analyses and concluded that peak
ground accelerations of the order of 1g were required
to trigger the failures. A second historic example in the
Chilean Andes in the study area is the 29
th
November
1987 Parraguirre river event (h
AuSer
, 2002 and refer-
ences therein). A ca. 6x10
6
m
3
rock slide in a heav-
ily fractured andesite, limestone and gypsum slope,
with a thin slab shape of about 1000 m long at 4350
m a.s.l. suddenly collapsed with no specific seismic
or rain trigger. The height drop was almost 1 km. The
Fig. 2 - Left: Deposits of 1958 Las Cortaderas landslide triggered by the Las Melosas earthquake in central Chile.
The front scarp is that eroded by the Yeso River after dam break, the back scarp is the 1958 landslide release
zone. Right: Giant block deposited by the 1987 Parraguirre debris flow in the Colorado River. The boulder
(about 2700 t, H
auser
, 2002) has been described to have moved for several kilometres from its original posi-
tion (authors for scale)
Fig. 3 - Path of outburst flood occurred in 2005 when Los Erizos dammed lake collapsed
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LARGE VOLUME LANDSLIDES IN THE CENTRAL ANDES OF CHILE AND ARGENTINA (32º-34ºS) AND RELATED HAZARDS
Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
291
hazardous situation. This outburst flow reached to 32,1
million cubic meters in about 67 minutes and run 254
km downstream in 12 hours (d`
odoriCo
et alii, 2009).
The major and probable most drastic outburst in Ar-
gentina was recorded in 1914 when the Carri Lauquen
Lake (36º 30´S), Neuquén province collapsed generat-
ing an extraordinary outburst flood on the Barrancas
River (g
roeber
, 1916; g
oNzález
d
íAz
et alii, 2001;
h
erMANNS
et alii, 2004a, 2004b). The lake had been
dammed by a landslide dated 2 ky (g
oNzález
d
íAz
et
alii, 2005). The dam collapse occurred overnight when
2 billion m
3
of water were drained from the lake re-
ducing its original 21-km-long to 5.6 km. Likewise its
surface was lowered about 95 m (g
roeber
,1916). The
resulting debris flow/flood ran over 300 km channeled
into the Barrancas River reaching the Colorado River
and devastating two villages and downstream valleys
(Fig. 4). Many cultivated fields with wheat, corn, and al-
falfa along these rivers were buried by mud and debris.
Twenty years later farmlands still had not recovered
(g
roeber
, 1933, S
ChuSter
et alii, 2002). Several animal
farms completely disappeared and the flow wiped out
railway stations, railway lines, and roads located along
the Colorado River. As well debris flow dammed the
(Fig. 2), the deposit left by this flow is small compared
to prehistoric deposits in the stratigraphic record in the
valley (h
AuSer
, 2002), which suggest that events of
much higher energy have occurred in the past, reflect-
ing that this solely event is not fully representative of
the hazard for the region.
In Argentina there are not historic events in the
study area, but some important ones have been report-
ed both North and South, indicating the effects these
kinds of hazards may produce. A landslide dam called
Los Erizos located at the Santa Cruz (Blanco River’s
headwater, San Juan province, 31º 41`S) generated an
outburst flood on the San Juan River when collapsed on
November 12
th
, 2005 (Fig. 3). The streamflow of San
Juan River reached over 1000 m
3
/s. This violent flow
caused severe damages downslope destroying bridges
and roads, and isolating many people in the mountain
areas. The just-built Caracoles dam was severely dam-
aged and the Ullum reservoir, located 180 km from the
failure area was affected. As consequence water be-
came turbid in few minutes, affecting the drinking wa-
ter system of the San Juan capital city. Even though the
existence of impounded lake was reported by employ-
ees of mining companies, yet nobody warned of this
Fig. 4 - Outburst flood generated by the collapse of the Carri Lauquen Lake (36º 30´S), Neuquén province on Decem-
ber 29
th
, 1914 draining 2 billion m
3
of water and affecting the valleys of Barrancas and Colorado rivers
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S.A. SEPÚLVEDA & S.M. MOREIRAS
292
International Conference Vajont 1963-2013. Thoughts and analyses after 50 years since the catastrophic landslide Padua, Italy - 8-10 October 2013
Quili-Malalal River, forming a tiny lagoon 200 m long
and 25 m wide, that disappeared quickly. The overflow
also triggered several landslides. In all, 175 fatalities
were reported, and more than 100 persons disappeared.
A turbidity event was recognized in the Atlantic Ocean
distant about 1,000 km from the original source area
(S
ChuSter
& h
ighlANd
, 2001).
These historic events show the potential of cata-
strophic large volume landslides in the study area,
mainly due to rock slides and rock avalanches in
glacial valleys that can produce large debris flows or
landslide or glacial dam break that can cause outburst
floods. Lack of collective memory generally underesti-
mated the potential hazard of these catastrophic events.
Another potential hazard is a Vajont-like event,
with slope failure on existent lakes or water reservoirs
that can produce catastrophic flooding downstream
due to dam overtopping or dam failure. This kind of
hazard must be investigated in places such the Laguna
Negra lake and Yeso reservoir in Chile, or the Potreril-
los reservoir in Mendoza. In the latter, some smaller
slides of not more than 500 thousand cubic me-
ters have been already identified, possibly triggered
by volume fluctuation due to its fill and discharge
(M
oreirAS
et alii, 2010). In all cases, the effects of the
landslide reaches far beyond the landslide site, pos-
ing a real risk for local communities and infrastructure
such a water supply for the large cities of Santiago
and Mendoza, land irrigation channels, hydroelectric
plants and roads, as well as tourist infrastructure.
CONCLUDING REMARKS
A great number of large volume landslides can be
recognized in the Central Andes of Chile and Argen-
tina. Most of them have not been studied in detail. Un-
derstanding the effect of landslide failure mechanisms,
the chronology of occurrence and the relationships with
other geomorphic processes in the area of study will al-
low a better assessment of the potential of future events
and the risk involved for the local community and infra-
structure. Furthermore, understanding of dam breaking
mechanics and effects after a landslide event is also im-
portant, as the runout of the flow that originates from its
rupture could easily reach inhabited villages and tourist
resorts located downstream along the main rivers and
disrupt strategic infrastructure for capital cities such as
Santiago or Mendoza.
Detailed geomorphological analyses of large land-
slides, combined with geochronological analyses and
vulnerability assessments of potentially affected com-
munities and strategic infrastructure are fundamental
to improve our understanding of these low frequency-
high impact events. The results of such studies will be
useful for regional and local territorial planning as well
as for design of emergency protocols for authorities
and services companies and development of local risk
assessments. Furthermore, early detection of unstable
areas that have not failed yet will allow future slope
monitoring for design and implementation of early
warning systems.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This work was done in the framework of sev-
eral Chilean and Argentinean research projects, and
integrated under the Unesco-sponsored IGCP 586-Y
project. Those headed by S. Moreiras are PIP 112-
200801-00638, SECYT 06/A441, SECYT 06/G550
and SECYT 06/A519. Research by S.A. Sepulveda at
the study area was mainly funded by Millenium Initia-
tive P02-033.
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LARGE VOLUME LANDSLIDES IN THE CENTRAL ANDES OF CHILE AND ARGENTINA (32º-34ºS) AND RELATED HAZARDS
Italian Journal of Engineering Geology and Environment - Book Series (6) www.ijege.uniroma1.it © 2013 Sapienza Università
Editrice
293
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