What Hawaii earthquake swarm means for Kilauea volcano

Kīlauea Caldera: Dome fountain formed at lava lake inlet

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Mount Kilauea is perhaps Hawaii’s most infamous active volcano, having been in a near-constant state of eruption over the last few decades. The mountain stopped erupting lava after a vicious cycle in 2018, but remains the subject of earthquake “swarms”. One of those has hit today, according to researchers keeping a close eye on the mountain, with hundreds of individual events in a matter of hours starting on August 23.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), the body responsible for monitoring seismic activity across the Atlantic, quickly caught wind of Kilauea’s latest movements.

The organisation released an advisory for Hawaii, stating that as of 4.30am HST (3.30pm BST), the USGS has recorded 140 earthquakes in total.

A “particularly strong sequence” rocked the Volcanoes National Park at 1.30am HST (12.30pm BST).

The most significant of them all maxed out at magnitude-3.3, although the majority of the earthquakes hit the island with a magnitude below one.

Can earthquakes trigger volcano eruptions?

Yes, sometimes it can – however, this is extremely unlikely in this case.

The USGS explains it is expected that only tremors greater than magnitude-6.0 are considered to be related to a subsequent eruption, and this can only be triggered if the volcano is already poised to erupt.

Describing the scene at Kilauea, the USGS said: “Currently, webcams and satellite imagery show no evidence of lava at the surface.

“HVO scientists will continue the monitor the situation and will issue additional messages and alert level changes as warranted by changing activity.”

So it looks like Kilauea is safe for now. However, despite the comparatively gentle activity on Kilauea’s surface, it appears to have stirred some magma after researchers noted “ground deformation” in the summit region.

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According to the advisory, this could indicate the “shallow movement of magma” beneath the south part of Kīlauea caldera.

The discovery appears to have unsettled USGS monitoring crews, who have upgraded advisories and increased the volcano alert level from “advisory” to “watch”.

The previous warning meant the volcano showed “signs of elevated unrest” above “known background level”.

While the new “watch” level means the volcano is “exhibiting heightened or escalating unrest” with an “increased potential of eruption”.

Potential timelines for an eruption are “uncertain” under this level, however.

The aviation colour code, which informs pilots of what they may encounter when flying in the region, has also changed.

The new code is orange, having increased from yellow.

Despite the increased warning levels, the USGS states Kilauea is not erupting at present.

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