More signs point towards a Saudi Arabian eruption ... or not? UPDATED


UPDATE 5/21/2009 4:30 PM Pacific
: The latest news suggests that there are little to no evidence of volcanic gases since Wednesday according to the SGS, but they continue to monitor.

Lava flows from a 1256 A.D. eruption near Medinah in Saudi Arabia (to the south of Harrat Lunayyir) taken by the crew of the ISS in 2004. It shows nicely the volcanic heritage (dark lava flow on right of image) in western Saudi Arabia. Image courtesy of JSC Earth Observation Lab.

Well, as the days go by, there are more and more indications that an eruption is about to occur in the Harrat Lunayyir region of Saudi Arabia. There is more confirmation in the press about "hot gasses" being released in the area near the epicenter(s) of the earthquakes and the seismicity is continuing - boths signs of magma moving towards the surface and degassing as it does. There are other confusing reports that mention things like "increased Radon" - which (a) I'm not entirely sure how they are measuring; (b) I'm not sure what it has to do with basaltic magmatism and (c) I think people are confusing with the controversy surrounding the Italian earthquake. Now over 2,000 people have been evacuated from the region near the earthquakes - and many of the quakes are still being felt far afield from the Al-Ais (Harrat Lunayyir) area.

If you find more news on the earthquakes and other signs of an impending eruption, please post them here!

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a quick Google of radon & magma indicates some geoscientists are trying to monitor radon released from the magma chamber near vent systems, ie Mt. Etna ... with varying degrees of success ....

By robert somerville (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

In fact, as robert indicated we (that is my colleagues Marco Neri and Salvo Giammanco, me and a few others) do measure radon at Etna, continuously since 4 years, with a test phase in 1998 lasting a few weeks. What we have seen on a number of occasions is that eruptive events (such as lava fountains at Etna's summit - where, however, the conduits are always open, which is different from the current situation in Saudi Arabia) were preceded by hours to >1 day by significant increases in radon activity, which is what we measure in becquerel per second per cubic meter. We have not seen any whatsoever correlation of changes in radon activity with earthquakes, and it is highly doubtful that radon measurements can make us "predict" earthquakes. This is because earthquakes generally are the result of fault displacements at many kilometers of depth, whereas radon is released only from the uppermost few meters below the Earth's surface (not from magma chambers, though!). But, if ground fracturing occurs at the surface, we can see changes in radon activity, and fracturing might actually be occurring in the seismically active region in Saudi Arabia. So the observation of changes in radon activity there is not surprising at all for me, and it would be interesting to learn more about the studies done there in this moment.

Thanks Robert and Boris for the extended info on radon monitoring - it shows that I don't know what I am talking about some of the time! Nothing wrong with not knowing - that is part of the reason I started this blog, to learn from all of you.

Anyway, I think my point in singling out the abundance of radon news goes along with what Boris pointed out - there isn't really any good correlation. I mean, what is wrong with looking at carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide? We know that it correlates with magmatic activity, so why are we so concerned with radon. It would be great if radon could become the "holy grail" of predictive monitoring - and I would be thrilled to hear about any data the SGS has collected on the subject, but I think in this situation, it is muddying the waters.

Hi everyone

I knew from the beggining that this activity is related to magma movements

Tectonic movements doesn't dissappear and change like what is happening in the area now

The activity started on the 4th of May 2009 by small and deep tremors

The first tremor that could be felt was M3.7

more than 1200 tremors occured in less than 48 hours

All of them occured deep in earth about 40 kilometers depth

Then it started to rise to 30 kilometers and as we see now it's less than 10 kilometers

Anyone need more information I will be pleased to provide what I know

do you have access to a list of earthquakes (on the web?) Are the earthquakes still happening now ???

By robert somerville (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

Unfortunately I don't have access to it

quakes are still happening but nothing is serious since the M5.6 tremor

I forgot to mention that this activity occured about 3 years ago, 2006 or 2007 I can't define the date a tremor occured and was less than M4 then nothing happened even minor tremors but the activity started again and that what makes me think it's magma movements not a tectonic related tremors

This link provides a seismic history of that area since 1990.

will this affect oil prices?

Riyadh, May 21, SPA -- The Saudi Geological Survey Commission, Saudi Arabia's authority in charge of monitoring and controlling seismological activity in the country, said today that the volcanic activity at Harrat Al-Shaqa, which showed unprecedented activity over the last 30 days, registered recent remarkable fall in terms of number and strength.
In a press statement, the authority said only six minor quakes were registered during the last 24 hours measuring about 3 points on the Richter scale.
The statement said nobody felt or reported the shocks neither of which exposed in volcanic vapor.

By robert somerville (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

Hi Erik,

Boris Behncke was saying that he did find a correlation with âsignificant increases in radon activityâ preceding âby hours to >1 dayâ âeruptive eventsâ âon a number of occasionsâ.

But he did write in the same paragraph âWe have not seen any whatsoever correlation of changes in radon activity with earthquakesâ.

Two different subjects. I believe Boris was saying he did observe a radon correlation with impending eruptions but not with earthquakes. You probably remember that someone âpredictedâ a recent earthquake in Italy based on elevated Radon levels. That was probably still on the mind of Boris and because he switched topics of discussion - and you probably read his post quickly your sharp mind missed his point. (I miss these type of points too sometimes.) :)

However, now that some of the pent up pressure from the volcano was released - the difficult job of vulcanologists begins.

Is the volcano just waiting another burp of pressure from inside in the earth and then it will erupt? Is there a blockage in a magma tube somewhere that is especially tough and maybe the magma chamber is quietly and inexorably pressurizing?

Maybe all the new magma rose as far as it is going to go and it will have to wait for another infusion of magma and so we may wait years to erupt?

There are a lot of âwhat if'sâ.

Without a significant investment in volcano research these type of questions will remain with us for a long time.

Now it may not be worth spending billions and billions just to get a handle on these size eruptions. But there are many caldera systems that can shock the whole world - if they erupt. The next time we get a few eruptions like we had in the 1800's from Tambora and Krakatau it will strain the world food reserves and cause famine.

Also, I am not sure how a worldwide ash cloud will affect jet airlines. Now, you need a substantial ash cloud to stop cold a jets engines. But what if a plane has to fly daily in a very diffuse ash cloud that is worldwide? Will the engines wear very quickly?

Just a Thursday rant from a volcano enthusiast. (I can't come up with a cute word to go with Thursday.)

Keep up the great work Erik.! :)

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

If this event turns into a volcano of the type anticipated (shield), then there should not be any effect on the oil markets. If it becomes something else, though, then it's possible that Red Sea shipping might be affected. I've seen some 'environmental' blogs suggesting that this activity is due to the removal of petroleum from underground (i.e., 'pumping oil'), but given the distance between the oil fields in the Eastern Province and Madinah Province, I think this highly unlikely.

Large ash clouds, however, could have a deleterious effect on US military flights. Right now, the US military readily obtains overflight rights from the Saudis. These flights are critical to mission support in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a lot of Central and South Asia.

If Saudi airspace were closed due to ash clouds, things are going to get tricky for the Pentagon (and other agencies) currently crossing the KSA.

I've met a few people from the Saudi Geological Survey in the past and they were all extremely competent. They, though, are facing an unprecedented (for them) challenge. I'm sure they won't hesitate to ask for whatever assistance they might need from their counterparts in Europe or the US, but the possibility of turf wars is sadly real.

Thomas -- I guess what I was refering to was Boris comment about how the setting for detecting radon was different: Etna is an open vent while any potential magma in Harrat Lunayyir could be kilometers below the surface. It is interesting to see this correlation, but again (and Boris would hopefully agree), carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions are still a more robust indicator of magma and eruptions.

John - I'm guessing that any eruption from the Harrat Lunayyir lava field will not produce significant amounts of particulate ash considering it should be basalt or basanite - low viscosity magma. However, what might be significant is the amount of carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide/hydrogen sulfide released. Remember, the Laki eruption in Iceland in 1789 was a basaltic fissure that released huge amounts of these volcanic aerosols.

Yes, Erik. I didn't fully comprehend all the nuances of Boris Behnke's comment. I might not fully understand it still - but that is OK. What will happen in Saudi Arabia will happen.

Now, if those gases that you suggest could be emitted are released in large quantities, people will have to project how much (if any) these gases will affect the climate.

I am getting frustrated with how little people actually know about climate science. All these variables. Sun spots and lack of sun spots. A weakening magnetic field, cosmic rays - volcanic activity, the forcing factor of CO2 and how powerful it is.

Volcanoes have traditionally played a part in climate change. Some of the climate money being doled out should also include the volcanology angle. (But that is just my opinion.)

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

Certainly measuring carbon dioxide (and possibly sulfur dioxide) would be very useful and interesting in this case in Saudi Arabia. Carbon dioxide is released from magma already when it's many kilometers below the surface, whereas sulfur dioxide comes later, when the magma gets closer (say, around 3 to 5 km) to the surface. But this is well known for an open-conduit volcano like Etna, whereas in Saudi Arabia a new conduit would have to form for a new eruption, so things might be very different there. This is what makes this case so interesting: to my knowledge, the most recent case of a new eruption in a cinder cone field is that of Paricutin in 1943, and no monitoring was done there before the eruption.
I would not, in any case, expect a new eruption in Saudi Arabia to be of cataclysmic proportions. It would be a Hawaiian-style basaltic eruption with a cluster of cinder cones growing at the vents, very minor and dilute eruption columns without much of a chance of affecting even the local climate, and extensive flows of fluid lava, lasting a few weeks to maybe a few months. The eruption at Jabal-al-Tair (Yemen) a few years ago was a fine example of the type of eruption to be expected in the area.
Thanks to all of you who provide updates and insights into this evolving situation.

What about Heimaey, Iceland in 1973? Although I suspect that no readings exist for this either.

By Richard Oliver (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

so why are we so concerned with radon

Pragmatism, I suppose. Radon is easy to detect, because it is the only radioactive gas you are likely to find. Besides, the molecule has only one atom, which means it can penetrate porous rocks easily.

Unfortunately radon is itself produced by radioactive decay, and the lodes of uranium may not be where you need them...

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

I guess it remains to be seen whether this all leads to an eruption, Eric, but it shouldn't be too surprising if it does. Apart from all the pretty cones all over the area that you can see on Google Earth/Maps, I gather that "harrat" basically means a lava field.

"Now over 2,000 people have been evacuated"

the correct is:
Now over 20,000 people have been evacuated.
from alays , and umm luj.

HI, about the Radon issue, we are monitoring Radon activity at the Canary Islands, as we think is a good indicator of seismic activity.

About CO2, we don´t need an open conduit to perform CO2 degassing, as most of CO2 is released in a diffuse mode (non visible). Diffuse degassing studies have been performed by many groups, ITER among them, all around the world. I agree with Boris about CO2 and SO2, but for sure SO2 will be difficult to find prior to the eruption if we don´t have an open crater...

I will suggest, if possible, to track any water spring around that zone. Maybe they can follow dissolved gasses trapped in water....

Anyway, is a really interesting situation....

Best Regards and congratulations for the comments in here.

By David Calvo (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

I found an online seismograph from Ar Riyad using GEE (Global Earthquake explorer), but without another live station close to Yanbu , hard to say where the apparent tremors are coming from that the Ar Riyad station is recording ( ... maybe 4 today ?? .... )

By robert somerville (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

This discussion has reminded me that I don't know nearly enough about volcanic gas monitoring - both as gas measurements or measurements in water samples. Sounds like I need to do some research and maybe post on Rn in volcanic systems sometime when I get a moment. Testing the springs in the area would be an excellent idea as well to look for the input of magmatic volatiles into the upper parts of the crust - that is what was done around South Sister in Oregon when the infamous "bulge" was discovered on INSAR imaging.

Speaking of which, I imagine there isn't any deformation information for this area of Saudi Arabia? That would also be interesting to examine.

I'm unaware of any deformation monitoring being done in the Kingdom at present. There wasn't any as of a few years ago, when I was last there. Perhaps there is now, but I can find nothing published on it.

Springs? Saudi Arabia, the Desert Kingdom? Well, the Harrat isn't quite as dry as the Empty Quarter, so maybe...

More practical might be wells at depths of 100+ meters.

David's comment from the Canaries has in fact underlined an important fact, that CO2 can be monitored without an open conduit, and in fact we don't measure it at Etna's active summit craters but on its flanks and at its base. Studying the geochemistry of waters issuing in volcanic areas can be very helpful - indeed, at the Three Sisters in Oregon a few years ago, where uplift was detected first thanks to radar interferometry (InSAR, a satellite-based radar technique aiming at detecting ground deformation), significant changes in water geochemistry was observed once the uplift had been revealed. I think that radar interferometry might be useful for the area affected by the recent seismicity and possible degassing in Saudi Arabia. If magma is rising toward the surface in a place where no open volcanic conduit is existing, that should cause some quite intense ground deformation, most probably uplift. We see Etna (an open-conduit volcano!) uplift each time before it erupts, and similar observations are now known from a number of other volcanoes, including Sierra Negra in the Galapagos (prior to its 2005 eruption) and Okmok, which erupted explosively last year. I doubt there has been any classical volcano monitoring in the Kingdom until now, because active volcanism hasn't been much of a factor in everyday life for a few generations there, so satellite based data might be the single thing to rely on for the moment.

In Saudi Arabia ..... volcano arduous mobile now, "is not the only Sroat over the mountain from the north of the peninsula to the south Is it possible to move after a volcanic eruption Hrpahagah move now," Saudi Arabia, even if some of them extend for some hundreds of kilometers and the other Alkleomtrut What scientific outlook, which can be relied upon, or previous experience of such a situation.

In Saudi Arabia ..... volcano arduous mobile now, "is not the only Sroat over the mountain from the north of the peninsula to the south Is it possible to move after a volcanic eruption Hrpahagah move now," Saudi Arabia, even if some of them extend for some hundreds of kilometers and the other Alkleomtrut What scientific outlook, which can be relied upon, or previous experience of such a situation.


âAL-AIS: Although three more tremors measuring 3.62 on the Richter scale shook Al-Ais 240 km northwest of Madinah on Friday, Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) said seismic activities at Harrah Al-Shaqah, the epicenter of the earthquake and the location of extinct volcanoes, subsided considerably. ...The tremors were registered between 2 p.m. on Thursday and 2 p.m. yesterday, said Col. Zuhair Sabeeh, commander of the Civil Defense force in Al-Ais.
.... Sabeeh said the Civil Defense has worked out a plan to bring back residents to their homes once the situation returns to normal.

The situation has now improved considerably and all indicators show that the tremors will end within the next few days, he said.

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 23 May 2009 #permalink

To answer Richard's question (comment #17) about gas monitoring at Heimaey before the 1973 eruption: no, there was no whatsoever kind of volcano monitoring at all - Heimaey was considered volcanically extinct! There was not even a seismic station on the island; a large seismic swarm probably related to magma movement immediately before the eruption was recorded by more distant seismographs, without, however, raising any suspicions.
Here's a good description of the Heimaey 1973 eruption:

Usually the thought of Monkeys with computers pops in my head when I usually use the net as they call it, but this is actually one of the few glass half full constructed pages I've seen in a bit. Not only is it an Interesting and compelling read, but it's also put together good and visually appealing. If by any chance you need help running this blog or any other projects you have going on shoot me a email or a reply.

Now a days it is very clear that eruptions and earthquakes have some relation with radioactive elements. Actually those are emitting radioactive gas radon which identified at the main cause of lung cancer. Sad there is a stats of 20000 death in USA for this gas.