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News Release 96-039

Scientists Study Undersea Volcano During Earthquake 'Swarm'

August 5, 1996

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The most intense 'swarm' of earthquakes ever recorded in Hawaii is now occurring at the Loihi undersea volcano, according to National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded oceanographers at the University of Hawaii.

The summit of Loihi seamount is more than 3,200 feet below the surface of the ocean and some 20 miles southeast of the big island of Hawaii. More than 2,000 earthquakes have been recorded in this area since July 16th with more than 40 quakes at a magnitude larger than four on the Richter scale.

Anticipating that this earthquake activity is accompanied by an undersea volcanic eruption, oceanographers at the University of Hawaii will embark August 5 on a six-day research cruise to Loihi on the research vessel Kaimikai-O-Kanaloa.

"Instruments on the ship will be used to observe possible changes in the depth of the ocean floor," says the cruise's chief scientist, Fred Dunnebier of the University of Hawaii, "and to take samples of hot water rising from the volcano." Microphones in the water will also listen for earthquakes and the sounds of eruptions. If weather and safety considerations permit, a manned submersible will dive on the seamount to observe the possible eruption and to collect rock and water samples, adds Dave Epp, director of NSF's marine geology and geophysics program, which funded the expedition.

"Though the Loihi earthquakes are small," explains Epp, "they are considerably larger than those associated with Kilauea's eruptions, so they may signify more than just an eruption going on. Probably what is happening is a succession of slumping events as the steep sides of Loihi collapse." Slumps and landslides are of significant concern, since when they move they displace seawater and can generate a tsunami, or tidal wave. But a slump large enough to generate a dangerous tsunami would result from a magnitude six or larger earthquake--big enough to be felt as strong shaking along the adjacent Puna and Ka'u coasts of the big island. "The problem is that the travel time of a tsunami from Loihi to the coast is only a few minutes," says Dunnebier. "The moral is clear: If you feel the Earth shake, get away from the ocean."


Media Contacts
Cheryl L. Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
David E. Epp, NSF, (703) 292-8581, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, its budget is $7.8 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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