UPDATE 3 – Powerful earthquake hits the Pacific off New Caledonia, generates tsunami

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A powerful earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 has struck the Pacific Ocean near the French territory of New Caledonia, just hours after a series of smaller earthquakes. A small tsunami has been observed in the area.

The largest earthquake, which struck at 9:43 a.m. local time on Monday, was centered about 62 kilometers (38 miles) northeast of Maré Island in the Loyalty Islands, or 250 kilometers (156 miles) northeast of the capital Noumea on the New Caledonian mainland.

There was no immediate word on damage or casualties, but the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center warned of a tsunami threat. “Hazardous tsunami waves from this earthquake are possible within 300 km (186 miles) of the epicenter along the coasts of Vanuatu and New Caledonia,” the center said.

Small tsunami waves were observed near the islands of Maré and Lifou in New Caledonia, as well as Tanna island in Vanuatu. It was not immediately known whether the tsunami caused any damage, but the tsunami alert remained in effect as of 10:40 a.m.

Monday’s earthquake followed a series of smaller earthquakes. A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck the same area at 8:25 p.m. on Sunday, followed by a 6.6-magnitude earthquake at 2:09 a.m. and a 5.9-magnitude aftershock at 3:08 a.m.

Computer models from the USGS estimated that as many as 396,000 people on nearby islands may have felt the earthquakes. Some damage and casualties are possible because structures in the region are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, the USGS said.

“It was strong enough to wake us up,” a resident in Noumea told the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center about the 6.6-magnitude earthquake that struck at 2:09 a.m. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

New Caledonia, which consists of a number of islands and is home to about 270,000 people, is located 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.

Late last month, a strong earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 struck the same region.

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