Volcanoes and earthquakes are some of the most destructive forces of nature, and many wonder when the next supervolcanic eruption or “big one” tremor will bring civilization to its knees. In stark contrast to this apocalyptic reputation, an absolutely bizarre new study has revealed that, on occasion, volcanoes may stop earthquakes dead in their tracks.
Writing in the journal Science, the team from Kyoto University describes the fairly titanic battle in Japan between the April 16, 2016, Kumamoto earthquake and the Mount Aso caldera.
The quake was one of several in a series of closely-spaced shallow tremors that injured thousands of people and killed at least 49. Shaking part of the western isle of Kyushu, it appeared to be centered at a point roughly 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the volcano.
Reaching a magnitude of 7.3, the destructive event was generated by a complex fault network slipping forwards at a relatively shallow depth of only 10 kilometers (6 miles).
Most quakes in the region are far deeper. They are primarily caused by the descending of the Philippine Sea plate, and any new cracks in the rock tend not to snake up to the surface. However, the Kumamoto tremor cracked open rock right beneath the feet of millions.
A batholithic map of the Aso caldera, with reds representing peaks and greens representing low-lying land. NASA
Using a combination of seismic before-and-after data and satellite imagery, the team realized the ruptures breached the Aso caldera and came to a sudden halt. It appears that a zone of magma rising up to greet the world halted the so-called “unzipping” of the earthquake by redirected the incoming stress and strain upwards, before absorbing the pressure.
Lead author Aiming Lin, a professor of geophysics at Kyoto University, told IFLScience that this event was the first such interaction of its kind that had ever been officially discovered. However, Lin said that this “may not actually be a rare case,” noting that similar events may have occurred in 1707 and 1930 in central and eastern Japan.
Regardless, this earthquake was already fairly severe as it is, but it appears that the Aso supervolcano may have saved the region from a far more destructive event. However, there is a darker side to the tale that cannot be ignored.