Earthquakes in Congo raze buildings, stoke fear of second volcanic eruption

By Djaffar Al Katanty

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -An earthquake on the border of Congo and Rwanda razed buildings in the city of Goma on Tuesday and stoked fears a nearby volcano would erupt again three days after dozens of people were killed and 17 villages were destroyed by lava.

The quake, measured at 5.3 magnitude by the Rwandan Seismic Monitor, was the largest of over 100 tremors that have followed the eruption on Saturday of Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo volcano, one of the world’s most active and dangerous.

“We know that children were injured when a building collapsed on Tuesday just a few steps from the UNICEF office in Goma,” the U.N. children’s agency said.

The quake appeared to have destroyed several buildings in the city of two million, and a witness said at least three people were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospital.

It struck at 11:03 a.m., originating in Rugerero sector in western Rwanda, according to the Rwanda Seismic Monitor.

The city experienced 119 tremors on Monday, but the intensity has started to decrease, said Kasereka Mahinda, scientific director at the Goma Volcano Observatory.

The earthquakes were caused by the tectonic plates seeking to recover their equilibrium after the eruption, a phenomenon seen after the eruptions in 2002 and 1977.

“As soon as the rift recovers its balance, the tremors will stop,” he told Reuters.

Multiple cracks in the earth have emerged in Goma in the last day, although businesses have re-opened across the city and life appeared to be largely returning to normal for those who did not lose their homes.

About 1,000 houses were destroyed and more than 5,000 people displaced by the eruption, the United Nations has said.

“According to the authorities, 32 people have died in incidents related to the eruption, including seven people killed by lava flow and five others asphyxiated by gases,” the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.

The lava flow stopped a few hundred meters short of the city limits, but wrecked 17 villages on the way, cut the principal electricity supply and blocked a major road, disrupting aid deliveries to one of the most food-insecure places in Africa.

The lava lake in the volcano’s crater appears to have refilled, raising fears of new fissures or another eruption, UNHCR said. Goma-based volcanologist Dario Tedesco said on Monday he feared the tremors could open another fracture.

The government said a 1.7 km (1.1 mile) stretch of road connecting Goma to the north of the province was covered with lava, blocking the movement of people and goods to an area where some 280,000 people have been displaced by conflict and fighting since January.

The United Nations said it would take days to re-open the road and that it was seeking permission from the government to start re-using Goma airport. The hub for aid relief for the east of the country was closed after lava came within 300 meters (yards).

More than half a million people have lost access to safe water, as lava destroyed one of the most important water supply sources, the International Federation of the Red Cross said.

“Although the flow of lava has stopped, authorities have warned that the danger is not yet over and that seismic activity in the area could cause further lava flows. Infrastructure damage is not ruled out,” the IFRC said.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty and Fiston Mahamba; Additional reporting and writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alistair Bell)

Volcano erupts near Iceland’s capital

By Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – A volcano erupted near Iceland’s capital Reykjavik on Friday, shooting lava high into the night sky after thousands of small earthquakes in recent weeks.

The eruption occurred near Fagradalsfjall, a mountain on the Reykjanes Peninsula, around 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital.

Some four hours after the initial eruption at 2045 GMT – the first on the peninsula since the 12th century – lava covered about one square kilometer or nearly 200 football fields.

“I can see the glowing red sky from my window,” said Rannveig Gudmundsdottir, resident in the town of Grindavik, only 8 km (5 miles) from the eruption.

“Everyone here is getting into their cars to drive up there,” she said.

More than 40,000 earthquakes have occurred on the peninsula in the past four weeks, a huge jump from the 1,000-3,000 earthquakes registered each year since 2014.

The eruption posed no immediate danger to people in Grindavik or to critical infrastructure, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO), which classified the eruption as small.

A fissure 500 to 750 meters (547 to 820 yards) long opened at the eruption site, spewing lava fountains up to 100 meters (110 yards) high, Bjarki Friis of the meteorological office said.

Residents in the town of Thorlakshofn, east of the eruption site, were told to stay indoors to avoid exposure to volcanic gases, Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management said. The wind was blowing from the west.

Unlike the eruption in 2010 of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which halted approximately 100,000 flights and forced hundreds of Icelanders from their homes, this eruption is not expected to spew much ash or smoke into the atmosphere.

Located between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, among the largest on the planet, Iceland is a seismic and volcanic hot spot as the two plates move in opposite directions.

The source of the eruption is a large body of molten rock, known as magma, which has pushed its way to the surface over the past weeks, instigating the earthquakes.

The number of quakes had slowed down in recent days, however, leading geologists to say that an eruption would be less likely.

Reykjavik’s international Keflavik airport was not closed following the eruption, but each airline had to decide if it wanted to fly or not, IMO said.

Arrivals and departures on the airport’s website showed no disruptions.

(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Leslie Adler, Matthew Lewis, Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman)

Quaking in their beds, sleepless Icelanders await volcanic eruption

By Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Icelanders are yearning for some undisturbed shut-eye after tremors from tens of thousands of earthquakes have rattled their sleep for weeks in what scientists call an unprecedented seismic event, which might well end in a spectacular volcanic eruption.

“At the moment we’re feeling it constantly. It’s like you’re walking over a fragile suspension bridge,” Rannveig Gudmundsdottir, a lifelong resident in the town of Grindavik, told Reuters.

Grindavik lies in the southern part of the Reykjanes Peninsula, a volcanic and seismic hot spot, where more than 40,000 earthquakes have occurred since Feb. 24, exceeding the total number of earthquakes registered there last year.

Located between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, Iceland frequently experiences earthquakes as the plates slowly drift in opposite directions at a pace of around 2 centimeters each year.

The source of the past weeks’ earthquakes is a large body of molten rock, known as magma, moving roughly one kilometer (0.6 mile) beneath the peninsula, as it tries to push its way to the surface.

“We’ve never seen so much seismic activity,” Sara Barsotti, volcanic hazards coordinator at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) told Reuters.

Some of those quakes clocked in at magnitudes as high as 5.7.

“Everyone here is so tired,” Gudmundsdottir, a 5th grade school teacher, said. “When I go to bed at night, all I think about is: Am I going to get any sleep tonight?”.

Many in Grindavik have visited relatives, spent time in summer houses, or even rented a hotel room in Reykjavik, the capital, just to get a break and a good night’s sleep.

Authorities in Iceland warned of an imminent volcanic eruption on the peninsula in early March, but said they did not expect it to disturb international air traffic or damage critical infrastructure nearby.

Unlike the eruption in 2010 of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which halted approximately 900,000 flights and forced hundreds of Icelanders from their homes, the eruption on the peninsula is not expected to spew much ash or smoke into the atmosphere.

Experts are expecting lava to erupt from fissures in the ground, possibly resulting in spectacular lava fountains, which could extend 20 to 100 meters in the air.

Already last year authorities put an emergency plan in place for Grindavik. One option includes putting locals on boats in the North Atlantic, if an eruption shuts roads to the remote town.

“I trust the authorities to keep us informed and evacuate us,” Gudmundsdottir said. “I’m not scared, just tired.”

(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Over 10 million displaced by climate disasters in six months: report

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – About 10.3 million people were displaced by climate change-induced events such as flooding and droughts in the last six months, the majority of them in Asia, a humanitarian organization said on Wednesday.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said about 2.3 million others were displaced by conflict in the same period, indicating the vast majority of internal displacements are now triggered by climate change.

Though the figures cover only a six-month period from September 2020 to February 2021, they highlight an accelerating global trend of climate-related displacement, said Helen Brunt, Asia Pacific Migration and Displacement Coordinator for the IFRC.

“Things are getting worse as climate change aggravates existing factors like poverty, conflict, and political instability,” Brunt said. “The compounded impact makes recovery longer and more difficult: people barely have time to recover and they’re slammed with another disaster.”

Some 60% of climate-IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the last six months were in Asia, according to IFRC’s report.

McKinsey & Co consulting firm has said that Asia “stands out as being more exposed to physical climate risks than other parts of the world in the absence of adaptation and mitigation.”

Statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) show that on average 22.7 million people are displaced every year. The figure includes displacements caused by geophysical phenomenon such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but the vast majority are displaced by weather-related events.

Globally, 17.2 million people were displaced in 2018 and 24.9 million in 2019. Full-year figures are not yet available for 2020, but IDMC’s mid-year report showed there were 9.8 million displacements because of natural disasters in the first half of last year.

More than 1 billion people are expected to face forced migration by 2050 due to conflict and ecological factors, a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace found last year.

(Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

New Zealanders urged to evacuate after third earthquake triggers tsunami warnings

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tsunami warning sirens sounded on Friday and thousands of New Zealanders on the North Island’s east coast evacuated to higher ground after a third earthquake.

Workers, students and residents fled in areas like Northland and Bay of Plenty. Civil defense officials were on the ground to help people evacuate as authorities said tsunami waves could reach three meters (10 feet) above tide levels.

The latest quake had a magnitude of 8.1 and struck the Kermadec Islands, northeast of New Zealand’s North Island. This came shortly after a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in the same region. Earlier, a large 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck about 900 kilometers (540 miles) away on the east of the North Island. There were no reports of damage or casualties from the quakes.

New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said the first waves would arrive on New Zealand’s north shores by about 9:45 a.m. It said areas under threat were from the Bay of Islands to Whangarei, from Matata to Tolaga Bay including Whakatane and Opotiki, and the Great Barrier Island.

“We want everyone to take this threat seriously. Move to high ground,” Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai told state broadcaster TVNZ.

Warnings were also issued for other Pacific islands like Tonga, American Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Hawaii and others.

Australia issued a marine tsunami threat for Norfolk Island but said there was no threat to the mainland. Chile said it could experience a minor tsunami.

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck off the east of New Zealand’s North Island was felt by more than 60,000 people across the country with many describing the shaking as “severe”. Aftershocks were still being recorded in the area.

“People near the coast in the following areas must move immediately to the nearest high ground, out of all tsunami evacuation zones, or as far inland as possible. DO NOT STAY AT HOME,” NEMA said on Twitter.

“The earthquake may not have been felt in some of these areas, but evacuation should be immediate as a damaging tsunami is possible,” it added.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Byron Kaye in Sydney; Editing by Nick Macfie, Chizu Nomiyama, Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)

Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung volcano spews ash into sky

By Angie Teo

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung volcano sent a cloud of hot ash as high as 5 km (3.1 miles) on Tuesday, in its first big eruption since August last year, the country’s volcanology center said.

Mount Sinabung’s activity has increased since last year and the alert for the volcano in North Sumatra province has been placed at the second-highest level.

No casualties were reported, but an official had earlier urged people to stay at least 3 km from the crater, Indonesia’s Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Centre said.

Videos on social media showed little panic among residents over the eruption, which sent a column of white ash into the blue sky.

Wirda Br Sitepu, a 20-year-old resident, told Reuters that the situation had calmed and said “the mountain is not erupting, and the ash has decreased.”

Indonesia straddles the so-called “Pacific Ring of Fire,” a highly seismically active zone, where different plates on the earth’s crust meet and create a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes.

Indonesia has nearly 130 active volcanoes, more than any other country.

Sinabung had been inactive for centuries before it erupted again in 2010.

(Editing by Martin Petty and Ed Davies)

Planet Earth its quietest in decades as lockdowns reduce seismic noise

ZURICH (Reuters) – Earth had its quietest period in decades during 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced human activity and its impact on the planet’s crust, according to scientists working on a global study.

An international group of seismologists from 33 countries measured a drop of up to 50% in so-called ambient noise generated by humans travelling and factories humming after lockdowns came into force around the world.

The team, which included experts from the Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich, a university, measured lower noise levels at 185 of the 268 seismic stations analyzed around the world.

Urban ambient noise fell by up to 50% at some measuring stations during the tightest lockdown weeks, as buses and train services were reduced, aircraft grounded and factories shuttered.

This made it much quieter than Christmas, traditionally the quietest time of the year.

“The weeks during lockdown were the quietest period we have on record,” said seismologist John Clinton, referring to data archives covering the last 20 years.

“With human noise always increasing, it is highly likely that it was the quietest period for a very long time.”

The experts, led by Thomas Lecocq from the Royal Observatory of Belgium, were able to track the “wave of quiet” around the world as lockdown came first in China, then Italy, before spreading across the rest of Europe and onto the Americas.

Lower background noise during lockdowns also means small earthquakes that otherwise would not be observed have been detected in some places.

Small tremors allow us to improve our understanding of the seismic hazard, said scientist Frederick Massin, and also help assess the probability of larger earthquakes in the future.

“This was an unprecedented opportunity. There’s no way we would normally be able to do this kind of experiment,” said Massin.

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Antarctica rocked by 30,000 tremors in 3 months, Chilean scientists say

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – More than 30,000 tremors have rocked Antarctica since the end of August, according to the University of Chile, a spike in seismic activity that has intrigued researchers who study the remote, snowbound continent.

Scientists with the university’s National Seismological Center said the small quakes – including one stronger shake of magnitude 6 – were detected in the Bransfield Strait, a 60-mile wide (96-km) ocean channel between the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Several tectonic plates and microplates meet near the strait, leading to frequent rumbling, but the past three months have been unusual, according to the center.

“Most of the seismicity is concentrated at the beginning of the sequence, mainly during the month of September, with more than a thousand earthquakes a day,” the center said.

The shakes have become so frequent that the strait itself, once increasing in width at a rate of about 7 or 8 mm (0.30 inch) a year is now expanding 15 cm (6 inches) a year, the center said.

“It’s a 20-fold increase … which suggests that right this minute … the Shetland Islands are separating more quickly from the Antarctic peninsula,” said Sergio Barrientos, the center’s director.

The peninsula is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, and scientists closely monitor the changing climate’s impact on its icebergs and glaciers.

But climate scientist Raul Cordero of the University of Santiago said it was not yet clear how the tremors might be affecting the region’s ice.

“There’s no evidence that this kind of seismic activity … has significant effects on the stability of polar ice caps,” Cordero told Reuters.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Reuters TV; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Peter Cooney)

White House to announce $11.6 billion aid for Puerto Rico: Fox News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House plans to announce an $11.6 billion aid package for Puerto Rico, focused on the territory’s energy and education systems, to help the island recover from the devastation brought by 2017’s Hurricane Maria, Fox News reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.

Puerto Rico was already struggling financially before the deadly hurricane struck three years ago, and filed a form of municipal bankruptcy for the commonwealth in 2017 to restructure about $120 billion of debt and obligations.

Since then, the U.S. commonwealth has been hit by more hurricanes, earthquakes, the coronavirus pandemic and political upheaval, and has been the target of increased federal scrutiny into its use of U.S. aid. A large portion of its financial distress was linked to the territory’s power utility.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Susan Heavey and Jonathan Oatis)

Google turns Android phones into earthquake sensors; California to get alerts

By Paresh Dave

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google’s Android phones on Tuesday started detecting earthquakes around the world to provide data that could eventually give billions of users precious seconds of warning of a tremor nearby, with an alerting feature first rolling out in California.

Japan, Mexico and California already use land-based sensors to generate warnings, aiming to cut injuries and property damage by giving people further away from the epicenter of an earthquake seconds to protect themselves before the shaking starts.

If Google’s approaches for detecting and alerting prove effective, warnings would reach more people, including for the first time Indonesia and other developing countries with few traditional sensors.

Seismology experts consulted by Google said turning smartphones into mini-seismographs marked a major advancement, despite the inevitably of erroneous alerts from a work in progress, and the reliance on a private company’s algorithms for public safety. More than 2.5 billion devices, including some tablets, run Google’s Android operating system.

“We are on a path to delivering earthquake alerts wherever there are smartphones,” said Richard Allen, director of University of California Berkeley’s seismological lab and visiting faculty at Google over the last year.

Google’s program emerged from a week-long session 4-1/2 years ago to test whether the accelerometers in phones could detect car crashes, earthquakes and tornadoes, said principal software engineer Marc Stogaitis.

Accelerometers – sensors that measure direction and force of motion – are mainly used to determine whether a user is holding a phone in landscape or portrait mode.

The company studied historical accelerometer readings during earthquakes and found they could give some users up to a minute of notice.

Android phones can currently separate earthquakes from vibrations caused by thunder or the device dropping only when the device is charging, stationary and has user permission to share data with Google.

If phones detect an earthquake, they send their city-level location to Google, which can triangulate the epicenter and estimate the magnitude with as few as several hundred reports, Stogaitis said.

The system will not work in regions including China where Google’s Play Services software is blocked.

Google expects to issue its first alerts based on accelerometer readings next year. It also plans to feed alerts for free to businesses that want to automatically shut off elevators, gas lines and other systems before the shaking starts.

To test its alerting abilities, Google is drawing in California from traditional government seismograph readings to alert Android users about earthquakes, similar to notifications about kidnappings or flooding.

People expected to experience strong shaking would hear a loud dinging and see a full-screen advisement to drop, cover and hold on, Stogaitis said. Those further away would get a smaller notification designed not to stir them from their sleep, while people too close to be warned will get information about post-quake safety, such as checking gas valves.

Alerts will trigger for earthquakes magnitude 4.5 or greater, and no app download is necessary.

MyShake, an app launched by Allen’s Berkeley lab last year to provide Californians warnings and let them report damage, has drawn 1 million downloads.

Stogaitis also said Google has not discussed its plans with Apple Inc, whose competitor to Android comprises half the market in countries including the United States.

Apple was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Nathan Frandino; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)