Tuff layers are vital stratigraphic tools that allow correlations to be made between widely dispersed exposures. Despite their widespread occurrence in the central Andes, tuffs from both natural exposures and sedimentary cores extracted from the region's extensive salars (salt pans) are relatively unstudied. Here we lay the foundation for a tephrostratigraphic framework in the central Andes (14-28°S) by chemically and morphologically characterizing ash shards, and in some cases dating 36 Neogene distal tuffs. These tuffs occur in lacustrine and alluvial deposits from the southern Bolivian Altiplano and adjacent Atacama Desert. All tuffs are calc-akaline rhyolites, consistent with their setting in the Central Andean Volcanic Zone. Five of the older tuffs were 40Ar/39Ar dated and yield an age range of 6.63-0.75 Ma. Organic material associated with tuffs deposited into paleolake sediments, paleowetland deposits, or urine-encrusted rodent middens provide constraints on the age of several Late Pleistocene and Holocene tuffs. These tuffs provide key stratigraphic markers and ages for lake cycles and archeological sites on the Bolivian Altiplano and for assessing rates of surficial processes and archeology in both the Atacama and Altiplano. While modern climate, and consequently questions about geomorphic processes and climate change, differs in the hyperarid Atacama and the semi-arid Altiplano, the most extensive air-fall tuffs covered both regions, placing the Atacama and the Bolivian Altiplano in the same tephrostratigraphic province. For example, the Escara B tuff (∼1.85 Ma), can be securely identified in both the Altiplano and Atacama. On the Altiplano, dates from the Escara B and E tuffs securely establish the age of the Escara Formation-representing the oldest expansive lake documented on the Bolivian Altiplano. By contrast, the presence of the Escara B tuff below ∼6 m of alluvial sediment at the Blanco Encalado site in the Atacama desert yields information about sedimentation rates in this hyperarid region. Indeed, most tuffs from the Atacama Desert are older than 600,000 years, even though they occur within fluvial terraces immediately adjacent to the alluvial fans that are still active. Most of these geomorphic surfaces in the Atacama also possess well-developed saline soils that, when combined with the radiometric ages of the distal tuffs, suggest slow rates of geomorphic change and exceptional landscape stability for this area during the Quaternary. In contrast, younger tuffs are more abundant in the more recent lake records of the Altiplano. The Chita tuff was deposited at ∼15,650 cal yr B.P., during the regressive phase of the region's deepest late Quaternary lake cycle-the "Tauca lake cycle"-which spanned 18.1-14.1 cal yr B.P. Two Holocene tuffs, the Sajsi tuff and the Cruzani Cocha tuff, are widespread. The Sajsi tuff was deposited just before 1700 cal yr B.P., whereas the Cruzani Cocha tuff appears to be mid-Holocene in age and shows some chemical affinities to a Holocene tuff (202B) deposited between 4420 and 5460 cal yr B.P. in a urine-encased rodent midden in the Atacama Desert.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)