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Images: Visit to an Inflating Volcano

Uturuncu Evening


(Image credit: Noah Finnegan.)

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.

Uturuncu Distance Clouds


(Image credit: Jonathan Perkins.)

Volcano, straight ahead. Uturuncu looms in the distance.

In the latter months of 2010 (autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, but the beginning of spring in Bolivia), University of California, Santa Cruz graduate student Jonathan Perkins and his advisor, Noah Finnegan, spent several weeks conducting field work along the shorelines of ancient lakes that lie on the flanks of the growing volcano.

Uturuncu Lake Finnegan


(Image credit: Jonathan Perkins.)

Finnegan stands along the barren shoreline of one of the lakes the two researchers studied. Scientists are seeking to figure out when the volcano began inflating, and geomorphologists such as Finnegan and Perkins look for clues in the landscape to find the answer.

Marks left behind by ancient water levels can indicate if the lakes have tilted over the course of millennia, signs that could help narrow down when Uturuncu began to rise.

Uturuncu Quetena Chico


(Image credit: Jonathan Perkins.)

The researchers stayed in tiny Bolivian towns during the course of their research. The sun sets over Quetena Chico, a small mountain village.

Uturuncu Jeep Salar De Uyuni


(Image credit: Jonathan Perkins.)

Off-roadin' scientists. Perkins and Finnegan drove to deserted, and largely dried up lakes, for their research. Perkins said many of the lakes now are now little more than salt flats .

Here, the jeep is stopped at the granddaddy of all salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni , the largest in the world.

Uturuncu Alpacas


(Image credit: Jonathan Perkins.)

At higher elevations, Perkins said the landscape takes on an otherworldly, desolate quality, and is largely devoid of life, but farther down the slopes, things look a little livelier. A group furry alpaca graze.

Scientists still aren't sure why Uturuncu is inflating so rapidly, and field work is continuing in hopes of solving the mystery.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.