A moderate 4.1 earthquake struck near Pahala on the Big Island of Hawaii, home to the world’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa. According to Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO) Scientist-in-Charge, Ken Hon, the earthquake had no observable impact on Mauna Loa and Kīlauea volcanoes. In a statement Hon said, “This earthquake is part of the ongoing seismic swarm under the Pāhala area, which started in August 2019. Please be aware that aftershocks are possible and may be felt. HVO continues to monitor Hawaiian volcanoes for any changes. The Alert Levels/Color Codes remain at ADVISORY/YELLOW for Kīlauea and Mauna Loa at this time.”
Earthquakes in this swarm occur beneath Kīlauea’s lower Southwest Rift Zone, beneath the town of Pāhala and in an area extending about 6 miles offshore. Earthquakes in this region have been observed at least as far back as the 1960s and according to the HVO and USGS, it is believed to be tied to movement within deep magma pathways under the island.
HVO is responsible for issuing Aviation Codes and Volcanic Activity Alert Levels. Aviation Codes are green, yellow, orange, or red. When ground-based instrumentation is insufficient to establish that a volcano is at a typical background level of activity, it is simply “unassigned.” While green means typical activity associated with a non-eruptive state, yellow means a volcano is exhibiting signs of elevated unrest above known background levels. When a volcano exhibits heightened or escalating unrest with the increased potential of eruption, it jumps to orange. Finally, when an eruption is imminent with significant emission of volcanic ash expected in the atmosphere or an eruption is underway with significant emission of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, the code becomes red. Volcanic Activity Alert levels are normal, advisory, watch, or warning. As with aviation codes, if data is insufficient, it is simply labeled as “unassigned.” When the volcano is at typical background activity in a non-eruptive state, it is considered normal. If the volcano exhibits signs of elevated unrest above background level, an advisory is issued. If a volcano exhibits heightened or escalating unrest, a watch is issued while a warning is issued when a hazardous eruption is imminent.
Mauna Loa is considered the largest active volcano on Earth, rising to 13,681 feet above sea level. Mauna Loa rises up from the ocean floor of the Central Pacific at a depth of about 3 miles. Because of the volcano’s significant mass, the ocean floor directly beneath Mauna Loa is depressed by another 5 miles. According to USGS, this places Mauna Loa’s summit about 56,000 feet above its base; the enormous volcano covers half of the island of Hawaii, also known simply as the “Big Island of Hawaii.”
Mauna Loa eruptions tend to produce voluminous, fast-moving lava flows that can impact communities on the east and west sides of the Big Island from Kona to Hilo. Since the 1850s, Hilo in eastern Hawaii has been threatened by 7 Mauna Loa lava flows. On the south and west sides of the island, Mauna Loa lava flows have reached the coast there 8 times: in 1859, 1868, 1887, 1926, 1919, and three times in 1950.
According to USGS, while Mauna Loa is not erupting right now , rates of deformation and seismicity remain elevated above long-term background levels. GPS measurements continue to show slow, long-term summit inflation consistent with magma supply to the volcano’s shallow storage system. A slight increase in the rate of inflation that began in January continues.
With another eruption on Mauna Loa inevitable, although the timing is not yet defined, the USGS is urging people on Hawaii to have a personal response plan, prepare a “go bag”, and determine what one would do in the event of an eruption at different times of the day or week.
“The most important thing you can do is to have a personal response plan,” says the USGS. Document what you’d do when a volcano erupts and make sure your family and friends are aware of what that plan is.
USGS suggests getting a “go bag” in order. “Nowadays, people pack “go” bags containing essential items in case you have to leave your house under an evacuation order. You may want to include important documents, like your birth certificate, deeds, legal papers, and medications.”
USGS says people in Hawaii should develop plans that factor in different types of days and time of day: if family members are at work or school at specific times, the plan should address what people should do and how they should communicate if an eruption occurs when people aren’t home. USGS says, “It is useful to also have a communication plan, so you can be in touch with those you care about.”
Mauna Loa is one of 5 volcanoes that make up Hawaii’s Big Island. The oldest volcano on Hawaii Island is Kohala, which is more than one million years old. Kilauea is the youngest, at an estimated 300,000-600,000 years old. Mauna Loa is the second youngest volcano on the island, estimated to be about 700,000 years old.