On May 4th, Hawaii’s Big Island was hit with a one-two punch of earthquakes.
The first, a magnitude 5.4, was followed only an hour later by a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. These quakes were the strongest to hit the area in roughly four decades, centered just 10 miles southwest of the Kilauea volcano.
Earthquakes are enough of an issue for a small island community, but this seismic activity was followed by a much bigger problem.
The Kilauea volcano, which was already experiencing minor fissures, cracked open and released a molten lava in the Leilani Estates area.
At least 1,700 people had to be evacuated due to the dangers posed by earthquakes, lava, and the toxic gas released from the volcano.
USGS reports that, in some places, lava is shooting up to 330 feet in the air. Lava is so hot that it can ignite items in its path before it even touches them. Thirty-five structures have been destroyed by the volcano as of the last estimate.
Nearly a week later, the lava still flows.
There is no estimate for how long families will be forced to stay away from their homes. For 30 years, the Kilauea volcano has been releasing a steady stream of magma. Researchers in Hawaii say that there is no end in sight.
As devastating as this is, it raises a more pressing concern for families in the Pacific Northwest: how long before an earthquake triggers volcanic activity on the West Coast?
Volcanoes In The PNW
What does volcanic activity in Hawaii have to do with the Pacific Northwest?
Back in 2005, the USGS filed a report regarding all the potentially active volcanoes in the United States. Of the 169 volcanoes in the report, only 18 that are considered a very high risk.
The most dangerous is Kilauea, currently erupting in Hawaii.
Out of the remaining 17, 10 are located in the Pacific Northwest.
Spread from Washington state through Northern California, the list includes volcanoes mainly located in the Cascade range. Mount Hood, Mount Shasta, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens are all on the list.
These volcanoes fall along Pacific Ring of Fire with Kilauea. This Ring of Fire is a 25,000-mile-long zone along the boundary of the Pacific Plate, where many tectonic plates meet. Due to activity below Earth’s crust, these plates often collide- causing seismic and volcanic activity.
A PNW Eruption
So, what would happen if just one of the volcanoes along the Cascade range erupted?
In March of 1980, a magnitude 4.2 earthquake rocked Mount St. Helens. This caused subterranean damage to the mountain, which started to vent steam and bulge on its north side.
Another earthquake in May, this time a magnitude 5.1, triggered a massive collapse of the north side and a resulting eruption.
The magma from the eruption, and the resulting landslides, destroyed over 230 square miles.
Over 1.5 trillion metric tons of toxic sulfur dioxide was released into the air. Ash erupted for nine straight hours, moving at an average speed of 60 miles per hour. That ash eventually settled in over 11 different states.
Fifty-seven people were killed.
Mount St. Helens is currently listed as the most dangerous earthquake along the Cascade range, as it is currently experiencing continuous activity.
How Soon Could It Happen?
The science seems to indicate that we are overdue for both a massive earthquake and an eruption along the Ring of Fire.
As of right now, there are at least 600 million people living in areas that might be affected by volcanic activity.
But there is good news.
Lava flows relatively slowly. There is typically enough time for you to evacuate with loved ones, if you are prepared.
The best way to avoid danger is to have your earthquake bag ready to go.
Many of us have supplies already stored in the event of an emergency. But if that emergency is barreling down the side of a mountain toward your home, you’d better be sure that those supplies are easily accessible and portable.