SANTIAGO, Chile - A wave of small earthquakes that has caused alarm in southern Chile may be related to the birth of an undersea volcano, officials said Tuesday.

More than 1,700 tremors have been recorded recently in the rugged, sparsely populated area dotted with volcanos and cut with fjords. Dozens of people slept outside or in tents on recent nights, fearing a larger quake might follow and topple their houses.

Most of the quakes have been too small to be felt, but some registered up to magnitude 4, according to the government's Emergency Bureau.

Volcano expert Juan Cayupi, part of a team that has been investigating the quakes, said scientists believe the quakes have been caused by "a magma force that is pressing up toward the surface, and is fracturing the rock" some 6 miles below the surface.

Cayupi said in a telephone interview Tuesday with The Associated Press from the area that the movement will probably result in "a small submarine volcano."

But he said "the reduced area affected" means that if a volcanic eruption occurs, it should be relatively small.

"We can safely say that there is no danger for the population" of some 35,000 people who live in Puerto Aysen and Puerto Chacabuco, the two towns closest to the Aysen Fjord.

Cayupi said the epicenter has been estimated to be 12 miles north-west of Puerto Chacabuco.

Aysen provincial Gov. Viviana Betancourt also said Tuesday that there is no danger to the population, which has remained mostly calm. She said authorities will continue to constantly monitor the situation.

Chile is an earthquake-prone nation with some 2,900 volcanoes. About 500 of them considered active though only about 60 have erupted in historic times.