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Watching the volcano: using earthquakes to look under cover at Pahala




The deep city of Pahala is located in the southern part of the island of Hawaii, and is currently the most seismically active area in the Hawaiian Islands. Locals and frequent deep earthquakes (greater than 20 km or 12 miles below sea level) are regularly felt by locals and, at times, people all over the island.

However, the current level of activity has not always been common in the area, and USGS Volcano Observatory researchers in Hawaii are interested in trying to understand more about why this is happening.

Until 2015, an average of 7 deep earthquakes occurred under the Pahala each week. By 2015, the number of earthquakes had nearly quadrupled, with approximately 34 events occurring per week. By the spring of 2019, the average number of weekly earthquakes identified in this region had increased nearly 70-fold, compared to pre-2015 rates. This high rate of seismic activity, with several hundred earthquakes occurring in an average week, has persisted until the time the present.

Since August 2020, larger earthquakes have begun to occur in the depths of the Pahala region. Eight earthquakes of magnitude 4.2 to 4.6 were recorded at a depth of 31-34 km (19-21 miles). These large events have been reported felt by people on the island of Hawaii as well as the nearby Hawaiian Islands.

HVO, in collaboration with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will begin an investigation this summer to learn more about the nature of these frequent and deep earthquakes under the southern part of the island of Hawaii.

Previous geophysical studies hypothesized that earthquake activity deep under the Pahala region may be related to magma transport in hot spots and/or faulting of the brittle upper mantle below the island. Interestingly, the area of ​​high seismic activity is located approximately equal distances from the peaks of the three most active volcanoes in Hawaii: Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Kamaihuakanaloa (Sea Mount Lohi).

Whether this area has a potential connection to the shallow magma storage and transport systems of Kilauea or Mauna Loa is unclear, but there are no clear indications of magma moving from this area to the surface. Previous studies relied on data collected from the region’s widely spaced permanent seismometers, which were not configured to study this region in detail.

This summer, HVO and UHM scientists – funded by the Disaster Relief Act 2019 (HR 2157) supplemental supplemental funds – will be cruising around the Pahala region, deploying instruments called seismic nodes that will help us understand why these earthquakes occur. Seismic nodes are light, compact seismometers that measure ground vibration at the location in which they are placed.

In contrast to permanent seismic stations, which are placed far from each other and cover the entire island of Hawaii, temporary seismic nodes will be tightly clustered in order to more intensely record seismic signals across the area around Pahala. For two months, these nodes will record Earth’s shaking caused by shallow and deep earthquakes across the island of Hawaii as well as distant earthquakes from around the world.

Dense-spaced nodal instruments that record earthquakes at a wide range of depths and locations during this experiment will collect seismic data from beneath the Pahala region with unprecedented accuracy. Seismologists at HVO and UHM will analyze data collected from these seismic nodes to create images of the Earth’s structure under the Pahala from 40 to 50 km (25-31 mi) below sea level all the way to the surface.

The data and images will be used to precisely locate earthquakes in this region, and hopefully determine or constrain the locations and distributions of shallow and deep fault zones and potential magma paths within the region. Together, the results will help us understand the cause of the frequent seismic activity in the depths of the area below the Pahala.

We plan to share the results of this project after the data has been processed. In the meantime – if you’re in the Bahala region this summer, please pay attention to the seismic nodes that record valuable data to help HVO shed light on the mystery of recurring seismic activity in the depths below.

Volcano activity updates

Kilauea volcano erupts. USGS Volcano Alert Level at WATCH ( Kilauea updates are released daily.

Over the past week, lava has continued to erupt from the western vent inside Halema’uma’u crater. All the lava is trapped inside the Halema’uma’u crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Sulfur dioxide emissions remain high and were last measured at around 2,700 tons per day (tons/day) on May 10. Seismicity is high but stable, with few continuous earthquakes and volcanic tremors. The top slope metrics show several minor inflation and deflation trends over the past week. For more information on the current eruption of Kilauea volcano, see

Mauna Loa is not erupting and is still at the volcano alert level. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption from the current level of turbulence is certain. Mauna Loa updates are released weekly.

In the past week, about 59 small earthquakes on the Richter scale were recorded below the summit and upper elevation sides of Mauna Loa – and most occurred at shallow depths less than 15 kilometers (9 miles) below sea level. GPS measurements show low rates of ground deformation over the past week. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at the summit and in the sulfur cone of the Southwest Rift Zone have remained stable over the past week. Webcams do not show any changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa, see:

One earthquake was reported to be felt in the Hawaiian Islands over the past week: a M3.4 earthquake 9 km (5 mi) east of Pahala at a depth of 31 km (19 mi) on May 8 at 4:08 PM HST.

HVO continues to monitor the ongoing eruption of Kilauea and Mauna Loa closely for any signs of increased activity.

Email questions to [email protected]

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.




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