American Samoa has hired experts to monitor seismic activities in the territory, after persistent swarms of earthquakes raised concern about a possible volcanic eruption.
Key points: Earthquakes have been felt by Manoa Islanders since July 26, small earthquakes can be indicative of the start of a new eruption, and experts say nearby volcanoes are very different from those in Tonga and tend to have smaller-scale eruptions.
For weeks, earthquakes have rocked the Manoa Islands, with residents reporting tremors and tremors of varying intensity since July 26.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the earthquakes are most likely related to the nearby underwater Ta’u volcano or Vailulu’u volcano.
“It is also possible that the swarm is an early harbinger of a definitive volcanic eruption,” says an analysis from the USGS.
Similar activity was reported in the lead-up to the devastating volcanic eruption in Tonga in January, but experts say a large eruption of this kind is unlikely.
The USGS says more investigations are needed and teams of scientists are currently on the ground monitoring the activity closely.
Should American Samoa and its Pacific neighbors be concerned? This is what we know so far.
The Manoa Islands in American Samoa are made up of three main islands: Tau, Ofu, and Olusega
The American Samoa government activated the National Emergency Operations Center (NEOC), asking local officials on the islands of Tau and Ofu to prepare assistance “in the event something happens”.
She described Vailulu’u as “an unpredictable and highly active underwater volcano, presenting a potential long-term volcanic hazard”.
When the Tonga Tonga-Hung Hapai underwater volcano erupted in Tonga on January 15, it caused the largest eruption researchers have documented since.
More than 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools sent water vapor into the stratosphere, causing devastating tsunamis that wiped out entire islands.
Professor Shane Cronin from the University of Auckland said it was understandable that people were concerned about the submarine eruption after Tonga.
But he emphasized that the chain of volcanoes in American Samoa is very different from that in Tonga.
In Samoa, volcanoes usually produce gentle eruptions, similar to what we see in Hawaii, with small lava flows or mild eruptions.
During the recent eruption of the Tonga volcano, some islands were completely wiped out by a subsequent tsunami, while only a few houses remained. (Reuters: Malaw Media)
“The Tonga volcano was a very, very big event that doesn’t happen very often,” Professor Cronin told ABC’s Pacific Beat.
“Most volcanic eruptions are much smaller and more controllable.”
Professor Cronin said that although small earthquakes could be an indicator of the onset of a new eruption, they may only be related to plate tectonic alterations in the area.
He predicts that earthquakes can continue for some time.
Professor Cronin’s comments reflect preliminary analysis from the USGS, which said the eruption was likely to involve slow-moving lava flows or low-level eruptions of lava localized to a small area.
“I would be surprised if it would affect many areas with volcanic ash or other types of sediment,” Professor Cronin said.
Vailuluʻu — which lies 40 kilometers east of Ta’u — last erupted in 2003, forming a cone within the summit of the caldera, according to the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO)
The last major earthquake and deadly tsunami that struck American Samoa in 2009 devastated coastal settlements. (AFP: Torsten Blackwood) How should locals prepare?
The volcanoes of American Samoa are monitored remotely by satellite and the earthquake detection station in Apia, in neighboring Samoa.
According to the USGS, these instruments may reveal significant explosive activity in American Samoa, but the lack of ground monitoring stations at the volcanoes does not allow advance warning of new activity.
Over the weekend, the USGS joined a team of experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the NOAA-IOC International Tsunami Information Center, on the ground, to better understand the earthquake chain.
Additional teams from HVO are also consulting with local authorities about the situation.
For now, Professor Cronin said, the best way to prepare for a potential eruption is the same as for any other natural disaster.
“It’s just a matter of getting ready, realizing, having all your valuables ready, etc., if there is a need to evacuate,” he said.
“And just watch the signs and signals of what’s going on and listen to what the authorities are saying.”
In September 2009, two major earthquakes between Samoa and American Samoa triggered a tsunami that generated waves up to 22 metres.
At least 192 people were killed, including 149 in Samoa, 34 in American Samoa, and nine in Niwatubutapu in Tonga.
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