Powerful 7.9-magnitude earthquake strikes the Solomon Islands

PUBLISHED Sat, January 21, 2017 - 11:45pm EST
Credit: USGS

A powerful earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.9 has struck the northern region of the Solomon Islands, seismologists and residents say. A tsunami alert that was issued for parts of the Pacific Ocean has since been canceled. (more)

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The earthquake, which struck at 3:30 p.m. local time on Sunday, was centered about 42 kilometers (26 miles) northwest of Panguna, a town on Bougainville Island that is located northeast of mainland Papua New Guinea and is geographically part of the Solomon Islands archipelago.

Both the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) put the magnitude of the earthquake at 7.9, down from initial estimates of 8.4 and 8.0. It said the quake struck at a depth of about 136 kilometers (84 miles), making it a relatively deep earthquake.

After the quake, tsunami alerts were issued for parts of the Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Indonesia. Most of the alerts were revoked when the magnitude was downgraded and the final tsunami alerts were canceled about 2 hours after the earthquake.

"There is no longer a tsunami threat from this earthquake. Remain observant and exercise normal caution near the sea. Otherwise, no action is required," the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said in an update. It added that only minor sea level fluctuations were recorded in the area near the epicenter.

It was not immediately known whether the earthquake itself caused any damage or casualties, but computer models from the USGS estimate that some 570,000 people on nearby islands may have felt the earthquake, including 234,000 people who may have experienced "very strong" to "severe" shaking.

"Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist," the USGS said in its assessment. "Some casualties and damage are possible and the impact should be relatively localized."

The Solomon Islands are on the so-called 'Pacific Ring of Fire', an arc of fault lines circling the Pacific Basin that is prone to frequent and large earthquakes. The Solomon Islands arc as a whole experiences a very high level of earthquake activity, and many tremors of magnitude 7 and larger have been recorded since the early decades of the twentieth century.

On April 2, 2007, a massive 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck close to the New Georgia Islands of the Solomon Islands. It unleashed a regional tsunami, killing 52 people and destroying more than 300 homes, schools and a hospital at Sasamunga. Two people were killed as a result of landslides, which were triggered by the earthquake.

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