Before the eruption in the early 90’s, Pinatubo was a rather unassuming mountain on the island of Luzon, Philippines. Standing only 2000 ft above surrounding peaks, it was almost obscured from vision. It’s flanks covered in lush green forest, without an eruption in memorable history, people never saw it as a threat. This change in June 1991 when it produced the second largest eruption of the 20th century (after Novarupta 1912).
Figure 2. Damage from the earthquake in 1990.
In 1990, on July 16th a magnitude 7.8 rocked the island of Luzon. A strike-slip along the Philippine Fault System it caused a surface rupture oer 125 km long. Killing over a thousand people it became the deadliest earthquake in Philippine history but may also have been the start of something much greater, geologists have long been convinced that it is linked to Pinatubo’s activity the following year. However it has never been proven if this earthquake stirred the sleeping volcano or if the reawakening caused the quake. For a few weeks after locals reported steam coming from Pinatubo, but when it was visited by PHILVOLC’s scientists there was only landslide evidence and not emissions.
Seismicity kicked off activity again on March 15th 1991. The north-west side of the volcano felt a swarm of tremors increasing in intensity over the next two weeks. On April 2nd a 1.5 km fissure opened along the summit with phreatic explosions dusting the local area in ash. seismicity continued to increase causing volcanologist to rush to its flanks to place monitoring equipment they had never thought to place while the mountain lay in slumber. The volcanoes eruptive history had very been studied before and they were surprise to learn it had large eruptions as recent as roughly 500, 3500 and 5500 years ago. On April 7th the first formal evacuations took place. With the Clark Air base just 14 km from Pinatubo the USGS aided PHILVOLCS in setting up 3 zones the first, a 10 km radius from the summit was the initial area to be designated unsafe and people were quickly evacuated to safety. Further zones from 10-20 km and 20-40 km were deemed safe for now but people were told to be alert to the possibility of evacuation if the mountain showed any sign of getting worse.
Activity stepped up in May with sulfur dioxide emissions rocketing from roughly 500 t p/d at the beginning of the month to over 5000 t p/d by May 28th. At this point emission slightly decreased and inflation began to increase rapidly leading many to believe pressure was building with the magma chamber.
On June 3rd the first lava was noticed signalling that a magmatic phase of the eruption had begun which eased some people’s mind as activity seemed relatively effusive. The first large explosion cam four days later on June 7th. An eruption column towered 7 km above the summit prompting the second wave of evacuations with people in the 10-20 km zone being prompted to leave their homes. A lava dome began to grow dramatically in the next few days reaching in excess of 600 ft wide. Activity seemed pretty constant at a low-level until 03:41 on June 12th when a new, more violent phase of eruptions began. As explosions intensified over the next few hours the eruption column grew to over 19 km. Pyroclastic flows surged as 4km from the summit in some valleys. Ash and tephra rained down on the surrounding area as the intense explosions lasted over . The final wave of evacuations was called for on the morning of June 13th as a small but intense earthquake swarm saw in a third phase in the eruption.
Figure 4. On of the most iconic images from the 1991 eruption.
People as far as 40 km away, and even further if possible, were urged to leave the area as quickly and calmly as possibly as Pinatubo showed no signs of slowly down its activity. The column peaked again, this time over 24 km high. Several more large explosions were recorded for the next 24 hours including one at lunch time on the 14th with saw another 21 km eruption column and more pyroclastic flows obscuring the view of the flanks.
From midday on June 15th the eruption reached its most climatic point. By 2.30 pm on the June 15th readings stopped being received from seismometers and other remote censoring equipment which the USGS had placed at Clark Air base indicating the area had been over some by the pyroclastic material still being ejected at a terrifying rate. An ash cloud covered an area greater than 125,000 km2 bringing near total darkness to much of the island of Luzon and ashfall was recorded as far as neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam. By 10.30pm that night all fell quiet and Pinatubo’s fury seemed to be over.
Figure 5. Mapping the spread of the SO2 released by Pinatubo.
The VEI 6 eruption spat out over 10,000,000,000 tonnes of material and a whopping 17,000,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide. It was the later which signed Pinatubo’s fate in people’s minds as the SO2 emitted quickly covered the globe causing the mean global temperatures to drop by 0.5°C for the following two years. Sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere reflects the Sun’s radiation back in to space meaning the Earth’s surface received up to 10% less sunlight in the following year. It also meant an increase in ozone damage, with the hole above the Antarctic being at the largest it had ever been.
An estimated 847 people lost their lives (many from collapsing buildings under the weight of the ashfall),but problems continued past initial fatalities in the aftermath. Over 2.1 million people have believed to have been affected by the disaster. Agriculture was severely effected both my ash fall and then following effects of the climate. Lahars plagued the region for years after with each heavy rain fall. It is often put by the end of 1992 the eruption and resulting lahars caused the country losses in excess of 400 million US dollars.
Despite this, the events of 1991 are often hailed a volcanological triumph with quick responses, prediction and evacuation believed to have saved the lives of thousands. It enabled us to gain an insight to volcanic impacts on climate and how we monitor the risks.
Today marks the 130th anniversary of Tarawera bursting back to life after 500 years of sleep. It was one of New Zealand’s largest eruptions in recent history and killed up to 150 people making it the countries most deadly since the arrival of the Europeans.
Tarawara was last active in 1315 and is believed to have had a great hand in the Great Famine of 1315-137 throughout Europe. In 1886 the mountain gave little warning of up coming events. On June 1st a series of waves were recorded on the surface of Lake Tarawera suggesting seismicity in the area although no one reported feeling quakes and there where no seismometers at this time. Tourists claimed they saw a phantom canoe floating across the waters with Maori warriors on board. Although there were multiple accounts on the sighting many believed it was simply a rogue wave caused by increased seismicity, tribal elders at Te Wairoa however claimed that it was a waka wairua (spirit canoe) and was a portent of doom.
All was quiet again in the following days and people though little of the complex. Many geologists at the time didn’t even consider the edifice to be active due to the lack of solfataric or fumarolic activity in comparison to New Zealand’s other volcanoes.
At 2am local time on June 10th this all changed. Locals where awoken by large tremors shortly followed by explosions heard as far away as Blenheim over 500 km to the south. by 2.30 all three peaks of Tarawera were eruption with fire fountains lighting up the pitch black, ash filled skies. The eruption began to the northeast side and spread rapidly along a fissure from Tarawera to Lake Rotomahana into the Waimangu Valley. The eruption was believed to be caused by a series of basaltic dikes which rose from depth and intersected the very active hydrothermal system under Tarawera and Lake Rotomahana, causing rapid steam/magma explosions, driving the plume that was observed and creating, by some accounts, fire fountains as tall as 2 km which explains the high explosively of a basaltic eruption.
The darkened skys were seen as far as Christchurch and was catapulted in the stratosphere where it lingered effecting climate for at least a year. The ash fall from the eruption – called locally the “Rotomahana Mud” – can be found into the Bay of Plenty almost 40 km away. This tephra covered 15,000 km2 over the North Island and over 4,500 km2 of the area with at least 5 cm of tephra.
The eruption itself produced at least 1.3 km3 of tephra (~0.7 km3 of dense rock equivalent), likely at a rate of higher than 6 x 104 m3/s. It also produced a base surge that travelled over 6 km from the craters moving 40 m/s and were large enough to top hills that were 360 meters tall which buried several Maori villages.
The Buried Village Rotorua is now a popular tourist destination often branded New Zealand’s answer to Pompeii. As well as the human impacts it also buried the Pink and White Terraces.
It has often been pointed out that the deadliest volcano is the one you did not know about. This is our dilemma. When you try to identify the potentially most dangerous ones, by necessity you have to go out on a limb to find those that are not well known nor well studied and there is always the chance to end up with egg on your face. But in this we are not alone. As an example, it was long thought that a particularly heavy layer of volcanic dust in ice core samples dated to c. 3650 BP belonged to Thera. Only recently has most of this been identified as belonging to the far larger, contemporaneous, 100km3 DRE Aniakchak eruption in the Aleutians, Alaska.
When it comes to large volcanic eruptions, one of the more striking features is the Sunda Arc that runs from Sumatra via Java and the Sunda Strait through the Lesser Sunda Islands. Sumatra is home to the Toba caldera, source and result of the largest volcanic eruption in the past 100 kA. Recently, a vast body of magma underlying Java was discovered, one that feeds that islands prodigious volcanic activity. But of the southern part of this arc; the Sunda Strait and the Lesser Sunda Islands, little is known. Yet this part of the Sunda Arc is home to two of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 1,000 years; Rinjani (~1257 AD, <80 km3 DRE) and Tambora (1815, 33 – 41 km3 DRE). Sufficient to say, was there a repeat of either of those eruptions today, the islands hosting these giants are home to some 4½ million people each and neither such VEI 7 blast would be survivable. As both had “mega colossal” eruptions recently geologically speaking, neither is a good candidate for another one in the foreseeable future. But on the premise that a similar magmatic feed into a similar geological setting will most likely result in similar volcanic activity, let’s take a closer look! Lightning did after all strike twice here within the past millennium!
From a birds-eye view, this area is characterised by the formation of very large stratovolcanic cones with a prominence in excess of 3 km (eg Raung, ancestral Catur, Ancestral Batur. Agung, Rinjani, Tambora and the partly submarine Sangeang Api), volcanic complexes (eg. Biau, Buyan-Bratan and Batur) and 10-15 km calderas (eg. Biau, Bedegul, Batur). It all comes together on Bali, tropical island paradise and the place to go for a romantic holiday. Apart from the 1963 VEI 5 (5.3) eruption of Gunung Agung, little is known about the volcanism of Bali.
With a population of 4,225,000 as of January 2014, Bali is home to most of Indonesia’s Hindu minority which according to the 2010 Census constituted 84.5% of the island’s population. Just over a quarter of a century ago, the economy was mainly based on agriculture. Before the 2003 terrorist bombings, over 80% of the economy was tourism-related and Bali had become the richest of all Indonesian territories. Annual tourism is in excess of eight million with five being Indonesian and the remaining three international. To crown it all, Bali was host to the 2013 Miss World pageant.
The crust beneath Bali Island is about 18 km thick and has seismic velocities similar to those of oceanic crust (Curray et al, 1977). The depth of the Benioff Zone beneath the Batur Volcano is 165 km, which has been computed by multiple linear regression analyses (Hutchison, 1976). The depth of the seismic zone beneath the arc reaches to approximately 650 km depth between Java and Flores. The oldest widely exposed rocks are lower Tertiary shallow marine sediments, which are intruded and overlain by plutonic and related volcanic rocks in a zone only slightly south of the present-day volcanic arc (Bemmelen, 1949). The rocks of the Sumatra to Bali sector range from tholeiitic through calc-alkaline to high-K calc-alkaline series.
Volcanism in Bali is concentrated to three areas, the Buyan-Bratan volcanic complex which formed roughly 100,000 years ago but holds several young stratovolcanic cones to the SSW, the Batur Caldera which formed <100,000 to 25,000 years ago and has the highly active stratovolcanic cone of Batur. Both areas contain large lakes within the caldera perimeters. Finally, there is Gunung Agung which had a powerful VEI 5 eruption as recently as 1963. However, the eruptive record of Agung extends no further back than to the 1808 VEI 2 eruption and that of Batur to a VEI 2 eruption in 1804. Being located just south of the Equator, the tropical climate and vegetation quickly covers whatever volcanics that have been deposited. This may create a false sense of security.
Buyan-Bratan Volcanic Complex
The age of the 6 x 11 km Bedegul caldera which formed when ancestral Mount Catur collapsed is unknown although it must be substantially older than ~30,000 years and possibly even hundreds of thousands of years. The field of young stratovolcanoes to the SW, the Byan-Bratan Volcanic Complex, is heavily vegetated, thus the latest period of activity remains unknown but has been tentatively placed hundreds or thousands of years ago (Wheller, 1986). Two of those stratovolcanoes, Tapak and Lesung must have formed after the last large eruption of the nearby Batur Caldera as they not covered by deposits of its youngest dacitic pumice eruptions. As this has been dated to 20,150 years ago, these stratovolcanoes with prominences of 625 and 669 m respectively as measured from the surface of Lake Beretan must therefore be less than this age. Inside the caldera, geothermal activity is exploited at the Buyan-Bratan geothermal power plant and there are at least a dozen hot springs in the area.
The outline of the remaining caldera walls suggest that there may have been two events; the first forming the 9 to 10 km diameter Western part with the stratovolcanic cone of Tapak forming subsequently near the centre, the second forming the smaller 5.5 to 6 km diameter Eastern part. Very tentatively and assuming that the calderas were formed by the subsequent collapse of those edifices following a major eruption, also assuming that the ancestral volcanoes were similarly steep to the nearby Mount Agung, we can make an educated guess at the size of those eruptions. Ancestral Catur (Catur A) would have been about 3,300 m high (a.s.l.) and the caldera bottom, allowing for subsequent infill, would have been about 600 to 800 m deep as measured from the remaining walls. This yields a figure on the order of 52 + 16 = 78 km3 or borderline VEI 7 for the larger caldera, Catur A. Catur B would have been about 2,400 m a.s.l. and the caldera ~500-600m deep as measured from the remaining walls prior to infill. This results in figures of 11.3 + 4.7 = 16 km3 or a small to medium-sized VEI 6 eruption. Please note that this is speculation on my part! No doubt better-informed readers will hasten to correct my assumptions from a position of superior knowledge!
Apart from the already mentioned Gunung Tapak (1909 m), the volcanic field subsequent to the caldera forming event(-s) includes at least another five major stratovolcanoes – Batukaru (2,276 m), Adeng (1,826 m), Pohen (2,063 m), Sengayang (2,087 m), Lesung (1,865 m). There is no information on any eruptive activity but as previously stated, due to the tropical climate and vegetations, all we can definitely state is that there has been no activity in the past two to three hundred years as there is no historical record of any. With at least two of them being younger than ~20,000 years, the likelihood is that all have been active recently, geologically speaking. What their presence does suggest however, is that the original magmatic system of ancestral Catur (Catur A & B) has been well and truly destroyed and that if in the future, there is renewed volcanic activity in the Buyan-Bratan volcanic complex, this will be from one or more of these young stratovolcanoes and most likely not greater than VEI 3, possibly a very small VEI 4 eruption in the sense that the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 counts as one. As an example, at Tapak there are at least five layers of scoria separated by four layers of paleosoil, indicative of at least five periods of extended eruptive activity separated by four periods of repose. (Watanabe et al:2010). Watanabe and his co-authors repeatedly lament the fact that while Batur Caldera nowadays is relatively well studied, almost no research whatsoever (apart from their own exploratory field study, author’s note) seems to have been undertaken of the less easily accessible Buyan-Bratan Caldera and volcanic complex.
Gunung Batur (1,717 m.a.s.l., prominence 700 m) is a small stratovolcano in north-central Bali and its most active. It has several craters and remains active to this day. The first historically documented eruption of Batur was in 1804 and it has erupted over 20 times in the last two centuries (VEI 1 – 2). Larger eruptions occurred in 1917, 1926 and 1963. Clinopyroxene from the 1963 eruption of Batur record crystallisation depths between 12 and 18 km, whereas clinopyroxene from the 1974 eruption show a main crystallisation level between 15 and 19 km. Furthermore, plagioclase melt thermobarometry indicates the existence of shallow level magma reservoirs with depths between 2 and 4 km for the 1963 eruption and between 3 and 5 km for the 1974 event (Geiger:2014). This suggests the existence of a very large and rather deeply lying primary or lower magma chamber as well as a moderately substantial upper magma chamber.
The term “Batur” often refers to the entire caldera, including Gunung Abang, Bali’s third-highest peak, which is situated along the rim. Batur is a popular trekking mountain among tourists, as its peak is free from forest cover, offers spectacular views and is easily accessible.
Batur has produced vents over much of the inner caldera, but a NE-SW fissure system has localized the Batur I, II, and III craters along the summit ridge. Historical eruptions have been characterized by mild-to-moderate explosive activity (Strombolian?) sometimes accompanied by effusive emissions of basaltic lava flows from both summit and flank vents which have reached the caldera floor and the shores of Lake Batur in historical time.
The Batur caldera formed in two stages. Through radiocarbon dating, we have a relatively good idea of when. The first and larger of these is associated with the 84 km3 dacitic ignimbrite known as the “Ubud Ignimbrite” which in locations is over 120 m thick. About 29,300 years BP, Ancestral Batur had a “mega-colossal” VEI 7 eruption which caused a steep-walled depression about 1 km deep and over ten km in diameter. The second ignimbrite, the 19 km3 dacitic “Gunungkawi“ Ignimbrite”, erupted about 20,150 years BP from a large crater in the area of the present-day lake. The second eruption triggered a second collapse, which created the central 7½ km diameter circular caldera, and formed a basin structure. Both the Ubud and Gunungkawi Ignimbrites are of a similar dacitic composition although the latter is more mafic, white to red in main with less than 10% dark grey to black dacitic pumice clasts. In the case of the second of these ignimbrite, two different cooling layers were identified. The lower, thus first ejected, is finely grained and welded, hence it was far hotter. In places, it is between 5 and 20 m thick. The upper, coarser, partially welded and hence “cooler” unit has suffered much erosion but is in places up to between 50 and 70 metres thick. The calculated volume of erupted material for the Ubud (84 km3) and Gunungkawi (19 km3) Ignimbrites coincide with and are proportional to the size of related collapses of Caldera I (80 km3) and Caldera II (18 km3).
After these eruptions, there were two further ignimbrite-producing eruptions, both mainly intra-caldera. The Batur Ignimbrite is a densely welded dacitic ignimbrite, typically 50 – 200 m thick, which at one point overflows the caldera rim to form 30 to 70 m thick layers of non-welded ignimbrite. The Blingkang Ignimbrite is a non-welded to moderately welded intra-caldera ignimbrite deposit between 5 to 15 metres thick. Sparse charcoal clasts scattered in this sheet give an age of 5,500 ± 200 years B.P. The thick phreatomagmatic and surge deposits which are found below the ignimbrite indicate that this was preceded by phreatomagmatic eruptions. In addition to these four sequences, basaltic to basaltic andesite lavas and pyroclastic deposits are inter-layered with and underlie the ignimbrite sequences, particularly in the southern slope of the caldera.
In spite of the frequently erupting modern Gunung Batur with its moderately sized eruptions, this caldera cannot yet be said to have shot its bolt due to the implied existence of a very large magma reservoir, one that was apparently not destroyed by the caldera-forming eruptions. Both the Batur and Buyan-Bratan calderas illustrate a recurring theme where first a very large stratovolcanic edifice is built after which there is a substantial VEI 7 ignimbrite-forming eruption followed by the formation of a dacitic to andecitic dome complex after which a large, ignimbrite-forming VEI 6 eruption follows. Even if one of these volcanic complexes almost certainly is no longer capable of such large eruptions and the other probably not in the foreseeable future, there remains one gigantic stratovolcano on Bali, one that has dimensions of 8 x 11 km as measured at the 1200-m isoline, 2,000 m above which its somewhat truncated summit towers.
Located in the eastern part of Bali, Mt Agung is a young basaltic to andesitic composite volcano. Bordered to the east by the inactive or extinct volcanic cone Seraja, to the south by an ancient volcanic complex and to the NW by a valley that separates it from the Batur volcanic complex, Agung goes all the way down to the Indian Ocean to the NE and through a long unimpeded decline over the Buyan-Bratan and Batur ignimbrites and lahar deposits to the SW and WSW, all the way to the capital Denpasar and beyond. South of Agung, there are older Tertiary volcanic deposits as well as remnants of coral reefs. The present-day volcano is surrounded by older Quarternary andesitic and basaltic-andesitic lavas and pyroclastic deposits, something that has prompted the conclusion that Agung overlies an older caldera formation (S. Self et al:1979).
The eruptive record of Agung goes back only to 1808 when the volcano had a VEI 2 eruption. Since that date, Agung erupted again in 1821 (uncertain) and 1843, both VEI 2 eruptions after which it remained dormant for 120 years until the great eruption of 1963. Prior to 1808 is a big unknown, although the relative symmetry of the mountain, the state of its upper slopes as well as a comparison with similar volcanoes suggests that Agung would have erupted relatively frequently.
On February 18th 1963, locals reported hearing a loud explosion after which a dark eruption cloud rose over Agung. The first explosions were probably phreatic or phreatomagmatic. On February 24th, highly viscous lava oozed over the northern slope, 0.5-0.8 km wide and 30-40 m in height. It was moving so slowly that it took 18 to 20 days to reach 500 m a.s.l after travelling some 7 km down from the peak. This works out at a speed of about 4 mm per second or 14 m per hour. The volume of lava erupted was estimated to be on the order of 0.05 km3. After this, the eruption continued with a combination of effusive and explosive events.
On March 17th came the main eruption. The eruption cloud reached 8-10 km above the volcano but the lower portions fell down the slopes as nuees ardentes that travelled with a speed of about 60 km/hour up to 12-15 km from the crater down the valleys to the south and east. From this description, it seems the eruption was peléean. The pyroclastic flows destroyed many villages around the volcano and caused the deaths of many people living near the river valleys. Estimates are that 820 people were killed by the pyroclastic flows, 163 people were killed by ashfall and volcanic bombs and a further 165 people were killed by lahars.
For the 1963 Agung eruption, results from clinopyroxene melt thermobarometry suggest dominant crystallisation levels between 18 and 22 km depth. Plagioclase melt thermobarometry indicates the existence of shallow level magma reservoirs, with depths between 3 and 7 km for the 1963 eruption, located around the boundary between the (upper) sedimentary and the oceanic type mid- to lower crust. The deep magma storage regions notably coincide with lithological boundaries in the crust and mantle beneath Bali, at the boundary between MOHO and crust, while the shallow reservoirs are consistent with recent geophysical studies that point to regional shallow level magma storage. An along-arc comparison reveals this trend to be characteristic of Sunda arc magma storage systems. According to Harri Geiger, the author, the result “highlights the utility of a thermobarometric approach to detect multi-level systems beneath recently active volcanic systems.” (Geiger: 2014)
As was remarked at the beginning; a similar magmatic feed into a similar geological setting will most likely result in similar volcanic activity. This premise is further substantiated by the conclusion presented by Geiger, that the deep magma storage regions notably coincide with lithological boundaries in the crust and mantle and that this is a characteristic of the Sunda Arc. The conclusions that can be inferred from these observations are:
Very large caldera-forming, ignimbrite depositing eruptions VEI 6 to 7 are a characteristic of Lower Sunda Arc volcanism
The location of the deep magma reservoirs is such that these are not likely to be destroyed by the caldera-forming eruptions unlike those at other locations (e.g. Roccamonfina, Mt Mazama, Aniakchak)
Bali contains no less than three such volcanic systems of which the currently inactive Buyan-Bratan Volcanic complex is in a phase of stratovolcanic dome construction, the Batur Caldera is in the process of rebuilding a main stratovolcanic edifice while the Agung system is meandering towards the end of that phase
All three volcanic systems pose potential hazards to the Balinese population and require further studies as well as systematic monitoring
Of the three, the greatest danger is posed by the Agung system and at present, there is insufficient data to rule out a very large, caldera-forming and or ignimbrite depositing eruption
For these reasons, Bali is our proposed number six on the New Decade Volcano program.
Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Shérine France for finding and bringing Watanabe et al 2010 and Geiger 2014 to my attention.
If you google “What is the definition of a significant earthquake?” you are met with Michigan Tech’s* response; Major – magnitude 7-7.9. However when looking at ‘significant’ earthquakes on the USGS** web page there are ones as low as magnitude 3.3. So to different people (and/or institutions) how we classify earthquakes seems to vary greatly and this occurs from top seismologists right through to media reporting and how we perceive the threat.
At 11.23 UTC on May 30th a Mg 7.8 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. This is the same magnitude as that of Nepal’s April 25th quake but one managed to devastate an entire region and the other barely shook a few skyscrapers. Unless, like my self you concern your selves with the rumblings of our planet, or you live in Japan or the surrounding area you probably did not ever know last Saturdays earthquake even happened.
1. Aftermath of Nepal earthquake April 25th 2015.
The main difference between the two is the location of their foci. The focus of an earthquake (sometimes called the hyprocenter) is often confused with the epicentre, however the epicentre is the surface area directly over where the earthquake takes place, whereas the focus is the actual point at depth where the snap of energy takes place. With the Nepal earthquake the focus was just 15 km under a heavily populated region. The buildings on the surface were poorly built and unable to with stand the violent shaking, bringing them crumbling to the ground killing over 8000 people.
2. Displacement by Japan’s March 11th 2011 earthquake.
The Japan earthquake in contrast occurred off the coast, below the Pacific Ocean, although the some shaking was felt onshore. Many may assume this is safer than an earthquake under an urban area but several of the most deadly earthquakes occur at sea as they can induce tsunamis like that of March 11th 2011 which killed nearly 30,000 in Japan or the infamous Boxing Day Tsunami which killed as many as 230,000! Luckily on Saturday no tsunami alert was even issued, as the biggest difference between these two 7.8 earth quakes is depth.
Occurring at 677 km beneath the surface, this deep-focus (below 300 km) earthquake happened so deep its distance from focus to surface is only slightly shorter than travelling from London to Berlin (690 km)!!! As seismic waves travel they dissipate, loosing energy so are never as intense as what they are closer to the source.
3. Diagram of an earthquake, highlighting its focus and Epicenter.the waves lighten in colour with distance from the focus to show their loss of strength.
So so far we have magnitude, depth and location which impact on the devastation potential, but is there any thing else? Well we can expand on the last, location, to highlight other potential threats posed by an earthquake. A moderate sized earthquake in the heart of Los Angeles or Tokyo may stop the subway and send food flying off shop shelves but casualties should be low. The same earthquake in a country like Nepal or Haiti can kill thousands. Earthquakes don’t kill people per say, I have never heard of some on being shaken to death by a quake.What kills people is poorly constructed buildings collapsing, bridges failing, gas mains bursting causing fires. After past disasters such as San Fransisco’s great earthquake of 1906, wealthy countries which sit along active fault lines have put in place strict building codes and pumped millions in to disaster management programs and construction. Obviously earthquake-proof is not always a possibility by earthquake-resistant definitely is and has saved the lives of many of the past few decades. Sadly not all at risk areas have that luxury of these safe guards at the expense of hundreds of lives.
4. Damage and fires caused by the Greath San Fransisco earthquake in 1906.
Seismology is a tricky business. With so much to take in to consideration when classify earthquakes, it is easy to see where there is often conflicting statements. Things are complicated further by the multitude of scales actually used to quantify them. When asked what scale is used, I can guarantee most will say the Richter scale (or local magnitude, ML), that is even what I was taught in school. Charles Richter first put his scale to use in 1935 to give a more scientific quantification for earthquakes than the previously used Mercalli scale which was solely based of human perspective and building damage (this is still used today but not as often). The Richter scale was limited in many ways being primed for nearby, mid-sized earthquakes (M 3-7). Seismologist Beno Gutenberg expanded on Richter’s work greatly enabling the scale to factor in greater distances and separated scales for surface waves (MS) and body waves (Mb).The revised scales still had difficulties and were particularly ineffective when looking at earthquakes which spanned great lengths of fault lines such the Aleutian Fox Island quake of 1952. The Richter scale was finally replaced by the Moment magnitude scale (MW) back in 1979 and this is the scale used by most institutes today including USGS.
Moment magnitude was born from elastic dislocation theory put forward in 1972 which suggests that energy release from a quake is proportional to the surface area that breaks free, the average distance that the fault is displaced, and the rigidity of the material adjacent to the fault. It is based on a similar logarithmic scale to the Richter scale with each step equating to an increase in the amount of energy released 101.5 ≈ 32 more than the previous. Earthquakes usually have similar Richter and moment magnitude numbers but rarely exactly the same and this can be one way one earthquake can be reported at different levels across the media if their sources used different scales. Another way which causes different figures is precision; the more seismic stations used to calculate magnitude the more precise the result. When an earthquake is first recorded institutes are likely to only use their own data but as soon as they have access to the global seismic network they can give a more accurate classification. This happen with Japan’s earthquake on May 30th, initial reports put it over a magnitude 8 but this was quickly downgraded to 7.8.
As you can see an earthquakes significance is a matter for debate and in many cases personal opinion. Magnitude and location (not just geographically but also politically) are the main factors but it tends to vary earthquake to earthquake.