Synonymous with violent earthquakes, catastrophic eruptions and devastating tsunamis, the Pacific Ring of Fire It is the area of the planet that holds the record for having some of the most devastating natural disasters. But what is it really and what is its relationship to phenomena such as the submarine volcanic eruption in Tonga in January 2022?
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What is the Pacific Ring of Fire
The Pacific Ring of Fire, also called the Ring of Fire, is an extensive region of the ocean from which it takes its name, where about 90 percent of the earthquakes of the entire planet are registered. In addition, in this place there are more than 450 volcanoes, 75 percent of those that exist throughout the world.
This zone covers an area of about 25,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) and extends from the west coast of North America to the extreme south of the macrocontinent, moving towards Polynesia, Oceania and Southeast Asia.
But what explains the intense seismic and volcanic activity? This area is the friction point of several tectonic plates (Pacific, South America, Nazca, North America, the Philippines and Australia), which are in permanent movement on the Earth’s mantle.
When these plates collide with each other, the heavier plate slides under the lighter plate several centimeters per year, building up large stresses that are released in the form of earthquakes or earthquakes. In addition, when the sinking plate comes into contact with the mantle, it becomes the magma that gives rise to new volcanoes.
Among the countries that are part of this zone are the United States, Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile in the American continent.
In addition, it crosses territories such as Russia, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Malaysia, Fiji, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.
Three myths about the Pacific Ring of Fire
Can earthquakes cause volcanic eruptions?
Although cases of volcanic eruptions after large earthquakes have been reported, scientific data shows that this relationship is not causal.
A 2013 study published by the journal Nature Geoscience found that two large earthquakes, magnitude 8.8 in Chile in 2010 and 9.0 in Japan in 2011, not only did not trigger any eruptions, but nearby volcanoes even sank, rather than rise.
In addition, there is a distance of 100 miles or more between most of the giants and the largest faults, so the relationship also loses strength.
In this way, earthquakes are the result of shifting tectonic plates, not magma flows, and have only a weak effect on volcanoes.
Are the big earthquakes the most damaging?
Although it is believed that earthquakes of greater magnitude and in places where the main faults of the Ring of Fire are the most dangerous, the data shows that this is not the case.
Researcher John Vidale, from the University of Washington, revealed that only one earthquake greater than magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale – which measures the release of energy – is on the list of the 16 deadliest, while a third had magnitudes less than 7.5.
In this regard, he recalled that Christchurch, in New Zealand, had to be rebuilt after a 6.3 earthquake in 2011. Or the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, in 1995. In the United States, the most damaging earthquake was that of 1994 in Northridge, California, with 6.7 degrees.
Are tsunamis the worst consequence of earthquakes?
The tsunamis in Indonesia (2004) and Japan (2011) claimed the lives of 300,000 people. However, both in the United States and in other countries within the Ring of Fire, the greatest loss of life is caused by the earthquakes themselves.
The third deadliest tsunami of the last century left thousands dead, but in the last 40 years alone a dozen earthquakes killed more than 10,000 each.