Washington, Wildfires and Kilauea: Geoscience 19-25 July 2018


Home / Washington, Wildfires and Kilauea: Geoscience 19-25 July 2018

You won’t be surprised to hear that Kilauea is once again in the geoscience roundup for this week. But there are other things to look at, one of them being the sadly topical subject of extreme heat and wildfires, and the other being the mysterious case of the movement of Washington State.

Where is Washington Going?

The tremors in the current Washington/Vancouver Island swarm are so small that very few show up on the USGS interactive map

The tremors in the current Washington/Vancouver Island swarm are so small that very few show up on the USGS interactive map. Image by USGS

I want to start with the story of Washington State, but in truth I’m finding it a little frustrating. This week I saw a story in the news that, while quoting requirable geoscientists, doesn’t seem to have a link to a specific piece of research (certainly not as far as I can tell from the articles to which I have access) and yet that looks as if it’s interesting enough to be part of a bigger story.

Let’s start with small earthquakes. The Seattle Times is running with the headline “Tremors shove Washington westward, offer clues into next big earthquake”. Unfortunately I can’t publish the graphic from the Seattle Times for copyright reasons, but I can tell you that it shows a very large number of earthquakes — probably hundreds — from a point roughly south of Olympia to approximately the middle of Vancouver Island.

The graphic I’ve included is for comparison purposes and is taken from the United States Geological Survey’s interactive earthquake archive and shows earthquakes of at least M2.5 in the region since mid-May this year. You’ll notice there are very few. The tremors occurring in Washington and on Vancouver Island are too small to be included.

In itself this tells us something, but it’s only part of a complicated story. Tectonically, this marks the line of a major — but quiet — subduction zone called Cascadia, along which the Pacific plate descends beneath the North American continent. Cascadia is noted for a very large earthquake which took place way back in 1700, but has been quiet since.

That’s quiet in terms of large earthquakes, or even small ones. What’s been happening is a burst of tiny tremors, and it isn’t unusual. It’s a phenomenon known as episodic tremor and slip and it’s defined (in this case by the Pacific North West Seismic Network as: “a process that occurs deep below the Earth’s surface, along faults that form the boundaries of tectonic plates. It involves repeated episodes of slow sliding, one plate over the other, of a few centimeters over a period of several weeks, accompanied by energetic seismic noise, called tremor.”

This is by no means unusual, and the PNSN has been studying these for years, publishing summaries of 15 short episodes since 2003. There has been a raft of newspaper reports similar to this week’s in the Seattle Times over the years, and in fairness none that I’ve seen has been particularly alarmist.

The message, I think, is that understanding these minor tremors and how they affect strain on the Cascadia zone, will bring us closer to understanding the processes which will lead to the next major earthquake along this section of America’s northwest coast.

Wildfires: A Growing Concern

Wildfires such as this one in California are likely to increase in frequency

Wildfires such as this one in California are likely to increase in frequency. Image by USGS

The natural world brings us some grim news footage. An unprecedented hot, dry spell across much of the world has led to what appears to be an increasing trend of major, destructive and fatal fires, not just in rural areas but affecting urban settlements too. This morning, the news outlets are reporting over 70 people killed in a series of fires in Greece. Last year there were major fires in (among others) California, Portugal and Australia.

The link between global warming and fires such as these is currently much-discussed, though as yet unproven. 2017 has been described as “the most destructive in U.S. history”. In May, before the current outbreak of summer fires, the European Geosciences Union blog took a look at the links between climate change and wildfires and it makes sobering reading.

What this analysis suggests is that climate change is contributing to the factors which make these fires so devastating — for example, long periods of hot and dry weather, but also changes in weather patterns. Perhaps most crucial, the blog highlights a feedback effect — fallout from an increasing number of high-latitude fires could affect the reflectivity of the ice caps and increase warming further.

The IPCC’s report on climate change in 2014 warned that: “Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability”. It looks as though we’re seeing a part of that on the news right now.

Kilauea Keeps Going

This satellite image shows the lava flows from the current eruptive phase at Kilauea

This satellite image shows the lava flows from the current eruptive phase at Kilauea. Image by USGS

So Kilauea is still erupting. The USGS notifications keep popping into my inbox and they keep saying the same things — lava flows continuing, volcanic gas output continuing, regular explosive activity at the crater and so on.

I promised to keep up with a weekly update even after the eruption ceased to be news, but I didn’t bank on the potential length of the eruption. (Of course I should have known: the last eruption which caught my interest in the same way, at Bárðarbunga in Iceland, lasted six months in 2014-15.) This week The Guardian reported that the eruption could last for years.

According to the Global Volcanism Program it already has: it gives the starting date of the current eruption in the volcano’s East Rift Zone as January 1983, which means it’s been going on for over 35 years.

Bearing that in mind, it’s probably more convenient to describe the ongoing activity as a phase of the eruption, rather than as the eruption itself.. But it is a reminder that volcanoes behave differently. Some erupt in short, sharp bursts, and some go on for a very long time.

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