A team of scientists have found evidence off the west coast of Africa that tens of thousands of years ago a collapsing volcano sparked a megatsunami producing waves up to 800 feet high and this could be a harbinger of things to come.
The researchers say an 800-foot wave engulfed an island more than 30 miles away. The study could revive a simmering controversy over whether sudden giant collapses present a realistic hazard today around volcanic islands, or even along more distant continental coasts.
Researchers’ point is that flank collapses can happen extremely fast and catastrophically and therefore, are capable of triggering giant tsunamis, said lead author Ricardo Ramalho, adding that they probably don’t happen very often, but researchers need to take this into account when they think about the hazard potential of these kinds of volcanic features.
The apparent collapse occurred some 73,000 years ago at the Fogo volcano, one of the world’s largest and most active island volcanoes. Nowadays, it towers 2,829 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level, and erupts about every 20 years, most recently last fall. Santiago Island, where the wave apparently hit, is now home to some 250,000 people.
There is no dispute that volcanic flanks present a hazard; at least eight smaller collapses have occurred in Alaska, Japan and elsewhere in the last several hundred years, and some have generated deadly tsunamis. But many scientists doubt whether big volcanoes can collapse with the suddenness that the new study suggests.
Rather, they envision landslides coming in gradual stages, generating multiple, smaller tsunamis. A 2011 French study also looked at the Fogo collapse, suggesting that it took place somewhere between 124,000-65,000 years ago; but that study says it involved more than one landslide. The French researchers estimate that the resulting multiple waves would have reached only 45 feet–even at that, enough to do plenty of harm today.
Ramalho cautions that the study should not be taken as a red flag that another big collapse is imminent here or elsewhere. “It doesn’t mean every collapse happens catastrophically,” he said. “But it’s maybe not as rare as we thought.”
The study appears in Science Advances.