Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the March 2004 issue of Scientific American.
In early November 2000 the Big Island of Hawaii experienced its largest earthquake in more than a decade. Some 2,000 cubic kilometers of the southern slope of Kilauea volcano lurched toward the ocean, releasing the energy of a magnitude 5.7 shock. Part of that motion took place under an area where thousands of people stop every day to catch a glimpse of one of the island’s most spectacular lava flows. Yet when the earthquake struck, no one noticed—not even seismologists. How could such a notable event be overlooked?
As it turns out, quaking is not an intrinsic part of all earthquakes. The event on Kilauea was one of the first unambiguous records of a so-called silent earthquake, a type of massive earth movement unknown to science until just a few years ago. Indeed, I would never have discovered this quake if my colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory had not already been using a network of sensitive instruments to monitor the volcano’s activity. When I finally noticed that Kilauea’s south flank had shifted 10 centimeters along an underground fault, I also saw that this movement had taken nearly 36 hours—a turtle’s pace for an earthquake. In a typical tremor, opposite sides of the fault rocket past each other in a matter of seconds— quickly enough to create the seismic waves that cause the ground to rumble and shake.
But just because an earthquake happens slowly and quietly does not make it insignificant. My co-investigators and I realized immediately that Kilauea’s silent earthquake could be a harbinger of disaster. If that same large body of rock and debris were to gain momentum and take the form of a gigantic landslide— separating itself from the rest of the volcano and sliding rapidly into the sea—the consequences would be devastating. The collapsing material would push seawater into towering tsunami waves that could threaten coastal cities along the entire Pacific Rim. Such catastrophic flank failure, as geologists call it, is a potential threat around many island volcanoes worldwide.
FORTUNATELY, the discovery of silent earthquakes is revealing more good news than bad. The chances of catastrophic flank failure are slim, and the instruments that record silent earthquakes might make early warnings possible. New evidence for conditions that might trigger silent slip suggests bold strategies for preventing flank collapse. Occurrences of silent earthquakes are also being reported in areas where flank failure is not an issue. There silent earthquakes are inspiring ways to improve forecasts of their ground-shaking counterparts.
The discovery of silent earthquakes and their link to catastrophic flank collapse was a by-product of efforts to study other potential natural hazards. Destructive earthquakes and volcanoes are a concern in Japan and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where tectonic plates constantly plunge deep into the earth along what are called subduction zones. Beginning in the early 1990s, geologists began deploying large networks of continuously recording Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers in these regions and along the slopes of active volcanoes, such as Kilauea. By receiving signals from a constellation of more than 30 navigational satellites, these instruments can measure their own positions on the planet’s surface at any given time to within a few millimeters.
The scientists who deployed these GPS receivers expected to see both the slow, relentless motion of the planet’s shell of tectonic plates and the relatively quick movements that earthquakes and volcanoes trigger. It came as some surprise when these instruments detected small ground movements that were not associated with any known earthquake or eruption. When researchers plotted the ground movements on a map, the pattern that resulted very much resembled one characteristic of fault movement. In other words, all the GPS stations on one side of a given fault moved several centimeters in the same general direction. This pattern would have been no surprise if it had taken a year or longer to form. In that case, scientists would have known that a slow and steady process called fault creep was responsible. But at rates of up to centimeters a day, the mystery events were hundreds of times as fast as that. Beyond their relative speediness, these silent earthquakes shared another attribute with their noisy counterparts that distinguished them from fault creep: they are not steady processes but instead are discrete events that begin and end suddenly.