Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the President of the Republic of Portugal, visited Sao Jorge yesterday, an island within the Azores where a seismic crisis continues. Urging calm and common sense, the President’s visit to the Azores was designed to put some at ease even as more than 20,000 earthquakes have rocked the island. While a volcanic eruption is possible, one hasn’t happened yet and scientists report no steam, lava, or even volcanic gas apparent on the island at this time.
“We are in a free society and, in a free society, everyone does what they think they should do, because everyone’s reaction is everyone’s reaction and it seems to me that, given what I’ve seen so far, the word to give is serenity and tranquility”, the President told reporters.
Discussing measures already made by locals and their officials, the President only said that “it is better to sin in excess than in defect” and explained that to sin in excess means “to monitor everything, study everything, measure everything and see the various scenarios that can be placed”.
More than 2,500 people have left the island in the last few days; before the seismic crisis started, the population was roughly 8,300.
“Now, reaction to this, I would say first that the most obvious and most natural reaction is for people to keep calm, keep calm, trust the experts who know about this matter and are following up and are the first ones who, at the first sign that arises that actually obliges the populations to behave in a certain way, they will tell the rulers and the rulers will transmit”.
The President of the Azores, José Manuel Bolieiro, also urged calm during a public session last week. “In terms of Civil Protection, it is good to have a commitment to excessive prudence. There is, for now, no record of elevation of the magma blanket. But between the facts and the projectable scenarios, we have to strike a balance. It is a worrying situation, as the entire epicenter of these earthquakes is on the island, not in the sea”, the Azores President said.
The Azores Seismovolcanic Information and Surveillance Center (CIVISA) raised the volcano alert level on the Azore Island of Sāo Jorge prompting authorities to prepare for a mass evacuation of the island. In the last 10 days, more than 20,000 earthquakes have struck Sāo Jorge, 1 of 9 islands that make up the Azores. While most of the earthquakes were measured by sensitive instruments and not by island residents, more than 200 were. There have been no reports of property damage, injuries, or deaths at this time.
CIVISA raised the volcano alert to a 4 on a 5-point scale due to the high seismic activity that has occured on the island over the last week. The Civil Protection agency activated its Regional Emergency Plan. The government is preparing to evacuate roughly 5,000 people from the municipality of Velas while plans are in the works to relocate vulnerable individuals among the population most affected.
If an eruption becomes imminent, the bells of the parishes will warn the island population. Luis Silveira, mayor of Velas town on Sao Jorge, said evacuation plans will then unfold on social media networks and on local radio stations.
While no official evacuation order to leave the island has been given, authorities say that at least 2,500 have fled the island to date.
Officials say air and sea resources have been mobilized to assist with any evacuation while a military support camp is being built within the municipality of Calheta. “The space where the military forces will be stationed is already being prepared,” said mayor Silveira, adding that the space will be “equipped with the necessary conditions, such as water and energy, in a coordination of the municipal services of the Municipality of Calheta.”
While the government will assist with the nearly imminent disaster, residents also need to prepare and take personal action should a volcanic eruption occur. Silveira said, “People must have their backpack prepared with the minimum, namely with a change of clothes, with their medicines, with some basic food.”
Clelio Meneses, who oversees Civil Protection services, said several national and international agencies are preparing for the possible disaster. Beyond regional and national Civil Protection, the National Institute of Medical Emergencies and the international Red Cross are also standing by to provide assistance.
Scientists are drawing parallels between this swarm of earthquakes with a sudden swarm of earthquakes that occured last year on Spain’s La Palma island within the Canary Islands, which is located roughly 870 miles southeast of the Azores; that swarm was followed by a destructive volcanic eruption that persisted much of last year, covering a significant area with lava and/or volcanic ash and cinders.
Sāo Jorge Island within the Azores is only 33 miles long and less than 4 miles wide and is home to roughly 8,100 residents. The island was formed by volcanic fissure eruptions beginning in the eastern part of the island. The western two-thirds of the island is newer, formed by fissure-fed lava flows. Lava effused from three locations above the south-central coast during 1580, producing flows that reached the ocean. The 1580 eruption claimed 10 lives. Five other significant eruptions occured after the 1580 eruption leading up to a historic eruption on the morning of May 1, 1808. On that day, suffocating gases, as well as carboxylic acid, were emitted from a vent along the Manadas ridge and thick greenish vaporous clouds of chloric and sulfuric acids were reported to spread rapidly among the vegetation on the island, killing them. During that eruption event, multiple powerful earthquakes were recorded each hour, creating widespread panic among those on the island. Due to the earthquakes and resulting volcanic activity, many of the homes, buildings and cultivatable lands were destroyed. The death toll from the 1808 eruption was low, with only 8 recorded deaths.
In the early 1900s, submarine volcanic vents erupted just off shore the island, but no lava has flowed across the island of Sao Jorge since the 1808 volcanic incident.
Scientists with CIVISA, the civil defense agency responsible for monitoring seismic activity there, say they plan to deploy additional equipment to measure signs of volcanic activity. As of press time, nothing beyond the steady pulsing of the earthquakes has been observed.
In September 2021, an earthquake swarm began on La Palma Island in the Canary Islands; just days later, an eruption broke-out. Scientists remain uncertain with how things will unfold in the Azores. A volcanic eruption could breach the surface, as was the case with last year’s La Palma eruption, or the earthquake swarm could simply end. While remote mapping has indicated some uplift due to the presence of magma below the surface, there aren’t imminent signs such as steaming cracks or the presence of volcanic gases at the surface, to cause immediate alarm.
Ahora mismo en la Palma pic.twitter.com/ecCZaDLuaY
— Mary Arellano Moreno (@mary_aam) September 19, 2021
For now, scientists will continue to monitor the seismic activity in the Azores for any signs of an imminent volcanic eruption. The 214 year silent period of volcanic activity on the island could be about to end.