Lahars Increase Stress-Tolerant Vegetation on Explosive Popocatépetl

Popocatépetl, or Smoking Mountain in the Aztec language, is an active stratovolcano, situated in central Mexico. Stratovolcanoes are steep, sloping volcanoes, characterized by their powerful eruptions and thick, slow-moving lava flow.

Mexico City with Popocatépetl hiding in the clouds (Source: Giovanni Paccaloni, Flickr)

At 8:26 am on March 6, Mexican authorities reported an explosion on Popocatépetl, according to the Mexico Daily News, which created a colossal ash plume reaching almost 4,000 feet into the atmosphere. As the explosive activity continues, an ash advisory remains in effect.

Popocatépetl is located about 43 miles from Mexico City, which has a population of 21.2 million people. As a result of the eruption, residents south of Mexico City are advised to keep all windows closed, use damp cloths around their noses and mouths, and drive slow due to the magnitude of ash on the ground.

Research published in the Journal of Vegetation Science shows an increase in stress-tolerant, competitive vegetation due to lahar activity on Popocatépetl. Lahars are fast flowing, destructive mudflows, often caused by eruptions and very hot flows of ash, lava, and gas. Lahars may also occur due to heavy precipitation.

Popocatépetl’s summit crater featuring Ventorillo and Noroccidental Glaciers (Source: NASA)


Glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Popocatépetl, are more susceptible to lahar activity due to glacial melting that occurs during eruptions. Reaching up to 2,200 °F, lava will melt everything in its path, including ice. As a result, glacial water can mix with dirt and debris to form dangerous lahars, which can destroy nearby ecosystems. 




Research Findings on Popocatépetl

In the study, researchers affiliated with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México analyze the leaf traits of 67 vegetation species on the Huilóac gorge. The gorge is located on the eastern slope of the volcano. The research project incorporates a total of 9 years of data.

Some of the analyzed species include Stevia tomentosa (small flowers), Roldana lobata (large herbs), Fragaria mexicana (strawberries),  Villadia batesii (evergreen succulents), and Stipa mucronata (grass).

Popocatépetl Volcano with flowering vegetation and hills (Source: nic0704, Flickr)

Using CRS (Competitive, Stress-Tolerant, or Ruderal) cataloging, the collected species were assorted into one of three categories. Competitive species adapt to productive, undisturbed environments. Stress-Tolerant species adapt to disturbed, harsh environments. And ruderal species adapt to disturbed, nutrient-rich environments.

The results of the study show that short-living vegetation with effective seed dispersal thrives in this cruel ecosystem.

The researchers conclude that “the change from ruderal/competitive to stress-tolerant and competitive species with time suggests that the most recent lahar event played a major role in sorting species according to their tolerance for disturbances”.

Increase in stress-tolerant species, such as conifers and alpine grasses, show that lahar activities play a role in species sorting. As vegetation adapts to favor resilience, it will transform Popocatépetl’s landscape. 

Read more on GlacierHub:

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