Volcanologists search for answers as Azorean island keeps shaking

Tremors, which have had magnitudes of up to 3.3, could trigger a volcanic eruption for the first time since 1808
Last Updated 27 March 2022, 15:24 IST

Fatima Viveiros was a little girl when she decided to become a volcanologist. It was a dream come true. Now aged 44, she is putting her skills to use to protect her home.

The lush mid-Atlantic volcanic island of Sao Jorge, where she grew up, has been rattled by more than 14,000 small earthquakes for seven days.

Viveiros and other experts fear the tremors, which have had magnitudes of up to 3.3, could trigger a volcanic eruption for the first time since 1808, or a powerful earthquake.

"My home is located on an active volcanic system," said Viveiros, who works for the region's CIVISA seismo-volcanic surveillance centre.

"When (something happens) in our home we must be a little cold-blooded so our feelings don't affect our thinking," she added. "But the feelings are there because it's my home, my people."

Viveiros was carrying a yellow machine on her back to measure soil gases on Sao Jorge, an island in the Azores archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal.

Soil gases, such as CO2 and sulphur, are indicators of volcanic activity, and Viveiros and her team have been battling Sao Jorge's rain and strong winds for days to dig for answers. So far, the levels remain normal.

Sao Jorge's sudden increase in seismic activity is reminiscent of the earthquakes detected before the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on Spain's La Palma island last year, some 1,400 km (870 miles) southeast of the Azores.

Over 85 days, that eruption destroyed thousands of properties and crops.

Viveiros travelled to La Palma at the time to support the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute and monitor soil gases there, and said Sao Jorge's volcanic system was similar to the one on the Spanish island.

"One of the possible scenarios on the table is that we see something similar to what happened in La Palma," she said after monitoring soil gases on land used for grazing cows.

Spanish and other international teams of experts are prepared to travel to Sao Jorge if needed, she added.

CIVISA raised the volcanic alert to Level 4 on Wednesday, meaning there is a "real possibility" the volcano could erupt.

Azores' President Jose Bolieiro said the earthquakes that hit Sao Jorge in recent days are double those recorded in the region as whole last year.

"There is clearly an abnormality," he told reporters.

Although authorities have said the eruption was not imminent, around 1,500 people have left the island by air or sea in recent days. Many have no idea when they will be able to return.

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(Published 27 March 2022, 15:24 IST)

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