2019 ended with a tragic bang, and 2020 is already a busy year for geologic disasters. Here's the latest.
Wharkaari/White Island continues to steam, Puerto Rico continues to shake, and Taal Volcano in the Philippines is roaring. I've collected the latest news for you. And soon, we'll have a deep dive into Puerto Rican tectonics, and another into the structure of Whakaari/White Island. Plus, we'll have a look at an old California earthquake that has some interesting commonalities with Puerto Rico, and tells us a lot about the importance of seismic retrofitting. It's going to be a busy time!
Before I give you the news, I just want to say, "No." No, what's going on with earthquakes and volcanoes over the past several weeks isn't unusual. You'll see in some of the Puerto Rico articles below that this swarm or sequence isn't unexpected, even though it's unusual. Swarms and sequences aren't all that rare in busy tectonic zones! Wharkaari/White Island is behaving exactly as an active stratovolcano does; it's just that we don't usually see tour groups allowed to wander through their craters. And Taal is also behaving in a manner consistent with its history.
Moreover, the rates at which things are quaking and erupting are par for Planet Earth. Anthropogenic climate change is the thing that is not normal and should alarm you. So instead of freaking out and looking for signs of the end of the world in earthquakes and volcanoes, please take a deep, calming breath, and then write and/or call your government officials to please ask them to do something meaningful to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It's a much better use of your time.
Apologies for the lecture. I've just seen a lot of alarmism from otherwise rational people, and it's been wearing on me.
Now: to the news!
The earthquakes in southern Puerto Rico can't stop, won't stop. One of the seismologists, respect most in this world, John Vidale, gave some insight into what an earthquake swarm is and why it might be happening. Unfortunately, this isn't a process that's well understood yet, but hopefully the work geologists are doing on the island right now will give us a clearer picture.
You might be surprised to see NASA helping with earthquake damage assessments, but they can do a lot to determine which areas suffered the most ground motion. It's incredibly neat science!
Puerto Ricans are having an extremely rough time with no end in sight. Thousands are still homeless, and many more terrified to return to structures that may not survive the next big shock. Engineers have been brought in to try to assess structures, but with the swarm ongoing, no one's really sure if inspections now will still be valid as the swarm continues.
It turns out even bees have suffered from the quakes, with many hives damaged and the shaking causing bee colonies to flee. And on top of the quakes comes a meteor, which thankfully didn't strike the island but unsettled folks already pushed well past the point of endurance.
Basilia Cruz refuses to let quakes and boulders dislodged by them chase her out of her home. I normally don't like to celebrate people who refuse to evacuate in dangerous situations, but she has a sober assessment of the risks, and some very wise words on balancing appreciation of nature's beauty with an understanding of its hazards.
Puerto Rico is woefully unprepared for the seismic hazards it faces. People there have no choice but to try to protect themselves and help each other without enough help from the government. Trump has done the bare minimum to help, but attached ridiculous strings to the Maria aid he finally felt compelled to release. The electrical grid needs a top-to-bottom overhaul and repair, but he isn't allowing funds to be used for that critical work. What the United States government is doing to Puerto Rico is unconscionable.
If you read no other article on that horrific state of affairs, read this one in Slate. Just. Have something handy to prevent yourself from exploding.
There haven't been any large eruptions at White Island Volcano since the deadly phreatic eruption on December 9th, 2019. Cameras on the island are back online, so you can keep an eye on activity. The alert level still stands at 2, so the possibility of seeing more blasts within the crater.
Sadly, the death toll is still rising over a month after the eruption. Australian father Paul Browitt, who was on the island with his daughters, died of his injuries on January 12th. He was the 18th official victim; two others are missing and presumed dead. A dozen people remain hospitalized. Volcanic burns are difficult to treat, especially since patients were exposed to unknown chemicals and bacteria which cause unusual complications. But thanks to the excellent care the victims are receiving in New Zealand and Australian hospitals, many are healing well and on track to return home in a few weeks.
The future is somewhat uncertain for the communities and companies that depended on White Island tourism, but tours are resuming to safer islands in the area, and a fund has been set up to help local companies recover and reinvent themselves. The Bay of Plenty region is fantastically beautiful. Tourism there should be able to thrive even without excursions to White Island itself.
The Philippines is no stranger to volcanic disasters. A pretty intense one is unfolding around Taal Volcano, which has already driven nearly two hundred thousand people from their homes and sent ash 9,000 feet into the sky in a spectacular phreatomagmatic eruption. It's gushed magma, caused huge cracks in the ground, and destroyed nearly a thousand homes. One of the most striking effects of the eruptive activity so far has been the vanishing of its beautiful crater lake.
There's currently a lull in the activity, but volcanologists are keenly aware that magma is still on the move, and the volcano isn't likely to be going back to sleep. They're watching closely for signs of worse eruptions to come. This is a volcano with a long history of violence. Chances are good we're going to see a major eruption.
It's been a busy start to the decade, and there's sure to be much more to come. We'll stay on top of as many of the tectonic happenings as we can!