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Geology in 2022: earthquakes and new minerals
El Ali meteorite

Science

Geology in 2022: earthquakes and new minerals

Shaking things up underground and in the textbooks.

Geology in 2022 started off, quite literally, with a bang. On January 15, just four days after being declared dormant, the South Pacific’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano exploded with the power of 60 megatons of TNT, sending a visible shockwave around the planet as many as four times. The eruption was so large it was heard, hours later, as a 30-minute-long series of bangs 6,000 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, with low frequency noise recorded for two hours. The Plinian eruption created the highest plume ever recorded, reaching 39 miles into the stratosphere. It blotted out the sun, blanketed the area in ash, and created clouds over both Australia and Hawaii.

Geology in 2022: earthquakes and new minerals

Umbrella cloud generated by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption. NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens using GOES imagery.

The eruption put a record amount of water (146 million tons, or approximately 58,000 Olympic swimming pools) into the atmosphere, which could lead to a temporary effect on the global temperature. A new caldera was created, causing tsunamis up to 7 feet in height to be recorded in Hawaii. Most impressively, the force from the plume caused hurricane winds and unusual electrical currents in the ionosphere. Surprisingly, there were only six confirmed deaths from Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apaia’s eruption, though several people are still missing. There were more than 30 other volcanic eruptions in 2022, including Mauna Loa (Hawaii), Fuego (Mexico), Etna (Italy), Shiveluch (Russia), Krakatau (Sunda Straight), and Fagradalsfjall (Iceland).

The Fagradalsfjall eruption was preceded by a super swarm of nearly 10,000 earthquakes, caused by magma movement in the fissure created by the spreading of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This super swarm is counted as one incident in the nearly 8,500 earthquakes that occurred this year, the two largest of which measured 7.7 on the W-phase moment magnitude scale. The first struck on the morning of September 11, 60 miles beneath the Markham Valley of Papua New Guinea, followed an hour later by a 5.0 quake at a similar depth about 45 miles away. These caused serious damage and landslides in the Morobe, Eastern Highland, and Madang Provinces, killing 21 people and injuring 42.

On the opposite side of the Ring of Fire in Michoacan, Mexico, on September 19, a shallow (2-3 mile deep) 7.7 magnitude quake struck, followed three days later by a 6.8 magnitude aftershock, one of more than 160 aftershocks total. While this shallow quake caused a good amount of damage and a small tsunami, only one person was killed, though two more were killed in the aftershock.

Of course, an earthquake doesn’t need to be large to have a large impact. On June 22, a 5.9 magnitude quake struck Afghanistan at a depth of just over 6 miles, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 1,500. While this was not considered a large quake, the shaking was very violent. In the Khost and Paktika Provinces of Afghanistan, the buildings are not constructed to withstand such stress. Made with adobe blocks and mud, the buildings were easily damaged.

Possibly the most frightening earthquake of the year happened just before midnight on March 16 off the coast of Fukushima, Japan. This 7.4 magnitude quake caused minimal damage, only three deaths, and a very small, 1-foot tsunami. After the massive disaster from the magnitude 9 quake and resulting tsunami in 2011, the world held its collective breath while waiting for the impact from this sizable event.

The earth can move in more ways than one, and it 2022 it didn’t just shake, it did a lot of sliding, too. In Malaysia alone there were more than 20 notable landslides, with the most significant occurring on December 16 in Batang Kali. This early morning event displaced 16 million feet of soil, trapping 92 people, 61 of whom were ultimately rescued.

As the climate changes, many areas are seeing record rainfalls, leading to an increase in landslides. In April, areas of Botswana and South Africa saw a foot or more of rain in a matter of days. This torrent of water caused serious flooding and massive landslides which killed 450 people. A World Weather Attribution study determined that climate change had doubled the likelihood of an event of this magnitude. There were similar stories of record rainfall in 2022 causing deadly flooding and landslides in Ischia (Italy), Manipur (India), the Philippines, Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

But hey, geology isn’t all doom and gloom! One of the coolest things to happen in 2022 was the discovery of two new minerals. The El Ali meteorite was “discovered” in Somalia in 2020 by a mining company looking for opals, though its existence was known to the local pastoralists for at least seven generations. A small piece of the meteorite was sent to the University of Alberta, where Chris Herd and Andrew Locock determined it contained two minerals never seen in nature before. Elaiite (Fe9PO12 ) and elkinstantonite (Fe4(PO4)2O) had both been previously created in laboratories in the 1980s, which made their identification easier. A third possible new mineral is currently being studied.

Geology in 2022: earthquakes and new minerals

El Ali meteorite

Another exciting research moment was the completed mapping survey of the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This unique geological feature is one of the deepest and largest offsets and is comprised of two parallel faults. This nutrient rich spreading zone is a hot spot of biological diversity and is the focus of conservation efforts.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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