Earthquakes subsiding in Saudi Arabia
The earthquake swarm underneath Harrat Lunayyir in Saudi Arabia appears to be subsiding and officials say people may be able to return to their homes by the end of the week. What might be happening under the Saudi Arabian volcanic field?
I write the Eruptions blog on Big Think. I've been mesmerized with volcanoes (and geology) all my life. It helps that part of my family comes from the shadow of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia, where I could see first hand the deadly effects of volcanic eruptions. Since then, I've taken a bit of a winding path to become a volcanologist. I started as a history major at Williams College, almost went into radio, but ended up migrating to geology, including an undergraduate thesis on Vinalhaven Island, Maine. I followed this up by changing coast to get my Ph.D. from Oregon State University. Then I ran a MC-ICP-MS lab at University of Washington for a spell (and wrote for an indie rock website). I spent three years as a postdoctoral scholar at University of California - Davis studying the inner workings of magmatic systems. I am now an assistant professor at Denison University and have projects in New Zealand, Chile and Oregon.
I am fascinated by volcanoes, their eruptions and how those eruptions interact with the people who live around the volcanoes. I started this blog after getting frustrated with the news reports of volcanic eruptions. Most of them get the information wrong and/or are just sensationalistic. I will try to summarize eruptions as they occur, translate some of the volcanic processes that are happening and comment on the reports themselves.
And no matter what people tell you, I definitely do not have a cat named Tephra. (OK, I do).
You can find out more about my research by visiting my website. If you have any comments, questions or information, feel free to contact me at eruptionsblog at gmail dot com.
Al-Qider volcano in western Saudi Arabia. Image courtesy of Ahmed Al-Hussaini.
After a week's worth of worry, it appears that the seismicity in western Saudi Arabia is subsiding. The latest statement from Zuhair Nawab, the head of the SGS, is that over the past four days with fewer and less severe aftershocks. If this continues, people who have evacuated the area around Al Ais might be able to return to their homes in a few days. However, it is important to note that even though officials suggest the seismicity is waning (and there may be indications this is not entirely accurate), the swarm is definitely not "over".
Rumors/reports of increased radon gas and changes in the chemistry of the well waters near the earthquakes epicenters appear to be unfounded. Saad al Mohlafi, the deputy director of the National Observation Centre, said that "no gases indicating an imminent eruption of a volcano have been found in Alees [Al-Ais]." This contradicts a lot of what was being said earlier last week and would support the idea that these earthquakes might not be directly related to any imminent eruption from Harrat Lunayyir. However, this does not preclude the idea that these earthquake could have been the product of a subvolcanic intrusion of magma underneath the volcano field that did not lead to an eruption. These contradictory reports and rumors have lead to more confusion for the residents of the region.
I am still flabbergasted by comments like this from Zuhair Nawab: "The magma level is still at eight kilometres ... I don't know where the media got this worrying level from." I have yet to find any information about how the SGS (a) knows what depth there might be melt - i.e., magma and (b) what "magma level" even means. The article linked here (and above) from The National in Abu Dhabi does suffer from a lot of mish-mashed science, such as bring up that, according to the EPA, radon "is reportedly the second-most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking." How does this help our understanding of any potential precursors to eruption? It really doesn't, but it does give an false pretense of scientific authority to the article.
I'll keep an eye on how events might change in western Saudi Arabia - remember, just because seismicity seems to be waning now doesn't mean this won't change in the near future. In any case, these earthquakes were a fascinating study in how rumor can effect people's perceptions of the perceived volcanic danger. If another earthquake swarm were to begin in the next months or years, the reaction might be very different.
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