Volcano Watch — New research sheds light on recent Pāhala earthquake swarms

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Many people in Kaʻū have noticed the swarm of earthquakes taking place during the past few years. These earthquakes are happening in a zone that is 29-40 km (18-25 miles) beneath Pāhala and extends south about 10 km (6 miles) offshore. Some of the largest earthquakes from this region have been felt throughout the Island of Hawai‘i. 

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.

The increase in earthquakes over the past few years, which is currently at a historically high rate, is of interest to residents and scientists alike. 

These earthquakes occur below our volcanoes and even below the base of the underlying ocean crust, in the uppermost mantle. This part of the mantle is called lithospheric mantle as it is cool enough to rupture and create earthquakes.  The deeper mantle is too hot and plastic to generate earthquakes and tends to flow like putty or clay.   

Historically, earthquakes in the lithospheric mantle, like those beneath Pāhala and elsewhere in Hawai‘i, occur in response to the weight of the island bending the lithospheric mantle down. The 2006 magnitude 6.9 Kīholo Bay earthquake was a great example of this type of “flexure” earthquake.   

Several ideas have been put forth about the cause of deep earthquakes beneath Pāhala and the southeast coast of Kaʻū since they were first observed in the late 1960s.  The initial hypothesis was these earthquakes were occurring on flat-lying fault planes and are related to flexure of the lithospheric mantle due to weight of the overlying volcanoes. However, the Pāhala deep earthquakes differ from the other lithospheric earthquakes beneath Hawaiʻi by the sheer number of earthquakes, especially since 2015.   

Other authors have suggested that the deep region beneath Pāhala was a pathway for magma from the upper mantle plume beneath the Island of Hawai‘i to Kīlauea Volcano.  They hypothesized that the number of earthquakes increased when magma was supplied to Kīlauea, though there is no direct evidence to support any magma movement and it requires a yet unidentified conduit to move the magma large distances horizontally to get beneath Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.  

Scientists recently examined the characteristics of the high seismicity that began beneath Pāhala in 2015. They found that as the number of earthquakes began to increase, many of the earthquakes occurred on steep faults as well as ones historically interpreted as flat lying. The number of earthquakes increased again in 2019 and so did the variety of faults producing them.  

The overall load of the volcanoes on the lithosphere would not change appreciably in a matter of years, so the variety of fault orientations requires a more complex answer to explain the large number of earthquakes and their changing orientation. The Pāhala region sits at the structural nexus between three volcanoes—Kīlauea, Mauna Loa, and Lō‘ihi.  Still, insufficient information to make a connection between the accumulation of strain in this region and the generation of these earthquake swarms.   

Instead, the scientists hypothesized that some magma may be leaking from the mantle plume and migrating into the Pāhala region and stalling at depth. The inferred magma could pressurize the region, resulting in an increase in the number and variety of earthquakes occurring beneath Pāhala. While there is no direct evidence that magma is accumulating, it is an interesting hypothesis that warrants more investigation.  

The Pāhala earthquake swarm in its current state appears to be a unique occurrence that has not previously been observed in Hawai‘i, though the historic record of seismographs only goes back a little more than 50 years. Additional research is planned and involves placing a dense array of tiny temporary seismometers in Ka‘ū to image of what is going on deep under Pāhala. If you get a call from a USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory or University of Hawai‘i scientist looking to place a small instrument on your land next year, please engage with them and do what you can to help expand our understanding of this complex system through supporting this important and interesting volcano research. 

Map showing earthquake activity

Map and plot showing earthquakes at 20-40 km (12-25 miles) depth beneath the Island of Hawai‘i over the past week. Most of the earthquakes at this depth were clustered beneath the southern edge of the island near the town of Pāhala (blue dots).  USGS graphic.

(Public domain.)

Volcano Activity Updates  

Kīlauea Volcano is erupting. Its USGS Volcano Alert level is at WATCH (https://www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/volcano-hazards/about-alert-levels). Kīlauea updates are issued daily.   

Lava activity is confined to Halemaʻumaʻu with lava erupting from a vent on the northwest side of the crater.  Laser rangefinder measurements this morning, May 20, indicate that the lava in the western (active) portion of the lake is 229 m (751 ft) deep, with most of the lava lake solidified at the surface. The summit tiltmeters recorded minor change over the past 24 hours. Sulfur dioxide emission rates measured on May 18 were 100 t/d. Seismicity remains stable, with elevated tremor. For the most current information on the eruption, see https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/current-eruption.

Mauna Loa is not erupting and remains at Volcano Alert Level ADVISORY. This alert level does not mean that an eruption is imminent or that progression to an eruption from the current level of unrest is certain. Mauna Loa updates are issued weekly.    

This past week, about 113 small-magnitude earthquakes were recorded below Mauna Loa; most of these occurred below the summit and upper-elevations at depths of less than 8 kilometers (about 5 miles). Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements show low rates of deformation in the summit region over the past week. Gas concentrations and fumarole temperatures at both the summit and at Sulphur Cone on the Southwest Rift Zone remain stable. Webcams show no changes to the landscape. For more information on current monitoring of Mauna Loa Volcano, see: https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna-loa/monitoring.  

There were 2 events with 3 or more felt reports in the Hawaiian Islands during the past week: a M3.2 earthquake 4 km (2 mi) WNW of Pāhala at 33 km (20 mi) depth on May 19 at 3:18 a.m. HST and a M2.8 earthquake 1 km (0 mi) SW of Pāhala at 33 km (20 mi) depth on May 17 at 2:41 p.m. HST.

HVO continues to closely monitor both Kīlauea’s ongoing eruption and Mauna Loa for any signs of increased activity.   

Please visit HVO’s website for past Volcano Watch articles, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa updates, volcano photos, maps, recent earthquake info, and more. Email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.   

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists and affiliates.