Foreshock series controls earthquake rupture

A long lasting foreshock series controlled the rupture process of this year’s great earthquake near Iquique in northern Chile. The earthquake was heralded by a three quarter year long foreshock series of ever increasing magnitudes culminating in a Mw 6.7 event two weeks before the mainshock. The mainshock (magnitude 8.1) finally broke on April 1st a central piece out of the most important seismic gap along the South American subduction zone. An international research team under leadership of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences now revealed that the Iquique earthquake occurred in a region where the two colliding tectonic plates where only partly locked.

The Pacific Nazca plate and the South American plate are colliding along South America’s western coast. While the Pacific sea floor submerges in an oceanic trench under the South American coast the plates get stressed until occasionally relieved by earthquakes. In about 150 years time the entire plate margin from Patagonia in the south to Panama in the north breaks once completely through in great earthquakes. This cycle is almost complete with the exception of a last segment – the seismic gap near Iquique in northern Chile. The last great earthquake in this gap occurred back in 1877. On initiative of the GFZ this gap was monitored in an international cooperation (GFZ, Institut de Physique du Globe Paris, Centro Sismologico National – Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Catolica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile) by the Integrated Plate Boundary Observatory Chile (IPOC), with among other instruments seismographs and cont. GPS. This long and continuous monitoring effort makes the Iquique earthquake the best recorded subduction megathrust earthquake globally. The fact that data of IPOC is distributed to the scientific community in near real time, allowed this timely analysis.

Ruptures in Detail

The mainshock of magnitude 8.1 broke the 150 km long central piece of the seismic gap, leaving, however, two large segments north and south intact. GFZ scientist Bernd Schurr headed the newly published study that appeared in the lastest issue of Nature Advance Online Publication: “The foreshocks skirted around the central rupture patch of the mainshock, forming several clusters that propagated from south to north.” The long-term earthquake catalogue derived from IPOC data revealed that stresses were increasing along the plate boundary in the years before the earthquake. Hence, the plate boundary started to gradually unlock through the foreshock series under increasing stresses, until it finally broke in the Iquique earthquake. Schurr further states: “If we use the from GPS data derived locking map to calculate the convergence deficit assuming the ~6.7 cm/yr convergence rate and subtract the earthquakes known since 1877, this still adds up to a possible M 8.9 earthquake.” This applies if the entire seismic gap would break at once. However, the region of the Iquique earthquake might now form a barrier that makes it more likely that the unbroken regions north and south break in separate, smaller earthquakes.

International Field Campaign

Despite the fact that the IPOC instruments delivered continuous data before, during and after the earthquake, the GFZ HART (Hazard And Risk Team) group went into the field to meet with international colleagues to conduct additional investigations. More than a dozen researchers continue to measure on site deformation and record aftershocks in the aftermath of this great rupture. Because the seismic gap is still not closed, IPOC gets further developed. So far 20 multi-parameter stations have been deployed. These consist of seismic broadband and strong-motion sensors, continuous GPS receivers, magneto-telluric and climate sensors, as well as creepmeters, which transmit data in near real-time to Potsdam. The European Southern astronomical Observatory has also been integrated into the observation network.

Foreshock series controls earthquake rupture

A long lasting foreshock series controlled the rupture process of this year’s great earthquake near Iquique in northern Chile. The earthquake was heralded by a three quarter year long foreshock series of ever increasing magnitudes culminating in a Mw 6.7 event two weeks before the mainshock. The mainshock (magnitude 8.1) finally broke on April 1st a central piece out of the most important seismic gap along the South American subduction zone. An international research team under leadership of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences now revealed that the Iquique earthquake occurred in a region where the two colliding tectonic plates where only partly locked.

The Pacific Nazca plate and the South American plate are colliding along South America’s western coast. While the Pacific sea floor submerges in an oceanic trench under the South American coast the plates get stressed until occasionally relieved by earthquakes. In about 150 years time the entire plate margin from Patagonia in the south to Panama in the north breaks once completely through in great earthquakes. This cycle is almost complete with the exception of a last segment – the seismic gap near Iquique in northern Chile. The last great earthquake in this gap occurred back in 1877. On initiative of the GFZ this gap was monitored in an international cooperation (GFZ, Institut de Physique du Globe Paris, Centro Sismologico National – Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Catolica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile) by the Integrated Plate Boundary Observatory Chile (IPOC), with among other instruments seismographs and cont. GPS. This long and continuous monitoring effort makes the Iquique earthquake the best recorded subduction megathrust earthquake globally. The fact that data of IPOC is distributed to the scientific community in near real time, allowed this timely analysis.

Ruptures in Detail

The mainshock of magnitude 8.1 broke the 150 km long central piece of the seismic gap, leaving, however, two large segments north and south intact. GFZ scientist Bernd Schurr headed the newly published study that appeared in the lastest issue of Nature Advance Online Publication: “The foreshocks skirted around the central rupture patch of the mainshock, forming several clusters that propagated from south to north.” The long-term earthquake catalogue derived from IPOC data revealed that stresses were increasing along the plate boundary in the years before the earthquake. Hence, the plate boundary started to gradually unlock through the foreshock series under increasing stresses, until it finally broke in the Iquique earthquake. Schurr further states: “If we use the from GPS data derived locking map to calculate the convergence deficit assuming the ~6.7 cm/yr convergence rate and subtract the earthquakes known since 1877, this still adds up to a possible M 8.9 earthquake.” This applies if the entire seismic gap would break at once. However, the region of the Iquique earthquake might now form a barrier that makes it more likely that the unbroken regions north and south break in separate, smaller earthquakes.

International Field Campaign

Despite the fact that the IPOC instruments delivered continuous data before, during and after the earthquake, the GFZ HART (Hazard And Risk Team) group went into the field to meet with international colleagues to conduct additional investigations. More than a dozen researchers continue to measure on site deformation and record aftershocks in the aftermath of this great rupture. Because the seismic gap is still not closed, IPOC gets further developed. So far 20 multi-parameter stations have been deployed. These consist of seismic broadband and strong-motion sensors, continuous GPS receivers, magneto-telluric and climate sensors, as well as creepmeters, which transmit data in near real-time to Potsdam. The European Southern astronomical Observatory has also been integrated into the observation network.

Study of Chilean quake shows potential for future earthquake

Near real-time analysis of the April 1 earthquake in Iquique, Chile, showed that the 8.2 event occurred in a gap on the fault unruptured since 1877 and that the April event was not what the scientists had expected, according to an international team of geologists.

“We assumed that the area of the 1877 earthquake would eventually rupture, but all indications are that this 8.2 event was not the 8.8 event we were looking for,” said Kevin P. Furlong, professor of geophysics, Penn State. “We looked at it to see if this was the big one.”

But according to the researchers, it was not. Seismologists expect that areas of faults will react the same way over and over. However, the April earthquake was about nine times less energetic than the one in 1877 and was incapable of releasing all the stress on the fault, leaving open the possibility of another earthquake.

The Iquique earthquake took place on the northern portion of the subduction zone formed when the Nazca tectonic plate slides under the South American plate. This is one of the longest uninterrupted plate boundaries on the planet and the site of many earthquakes and volcanos. The 8.2 earthquake was foreshadowed by a systematic sequence of foreshocks recorded at 6.0, 6.5, 6.7 and 6.2 with each foreshock triggering the next until the main earthquake occurred.

These earthquakes relieved the stresses on some parts of the fault. Then the 8.2 earthquake relieved more stress, followed by a series of aftershocks in the range of 7.7. While the aftershocks did fill in some of the gaps left by the 8.2 earthquake, the large earthquake and aftershocks could not fill in the entire gap where the fault had not ruptured in a very long time. That area is unruptured and still under stress.

The foreshocks eased some of the built up stress on 60 to 100 miles of fault, and the main shock released stress on about 155 miles, but about 155 miles of fault remain unchanged, the researchers report today (Aug. 13) in Nature.

“There can still be a big earthquake there,” said Furlong. “It didn’t release the total hazard, but it told us something about this large earthquake area. That an 8.8 rupture doesn’t always happen.”

The researchers were able to do this analysis in near real time because of the availability of large computing power and previously laid groundwork.

The computing power allowed researchers to model the fault more accurately. In the past, subduction zones were modeled as if they were on a plane, but the plate that is subducting curves underneath the other plate creating a 3-dimensional fault line. The researchers used a model that accounted for this curving and so more accurately recreated the stresses on the real geology at the fault.

“One of the things the U.S. Geological Survey and we have been doing is characterizing the major tectonic settings,” said Furlong. “So when an earthquake is imminent, we don’t need a lot of time for the background.”

In essence, they are creating a library of information about earthquake faults and have completed the first level, a general set of information on areas such as Japan, South America and the Caribbean. Now they are creating the levels of north and south Japan or Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Knowing where the old earthquake occurred, how large it was and how long ago it happened, the researchers could look at the foreshocks, see how much stress they relieved and anticipate, at least in a small way, what would happen.

“This is what we need to do in the future in near real time for decision makers,” said Furl.

Study of Chilean quake shows potential for future earthquake

Near real-time analysis of the April 1 earthquake in Iquique, Chile, showed that the 8.2 event occurred in a gap on the fault unruptured since 1877 and that the April event was not what the scientists had expected, according to an international team of geologists.

“We assumed that the area of the 1877 earthquake would eventually rupture, but all indications are that this 8.2 event was not the 8.8 event we were looking for,” said Kevin P. Furlong, professor of geophysics, Penn State. “We looked at it to see if this was the big one.”

But according to the researchers, it was not. Seismologists expect that areas of faults will react the same way over and over. However, the April earthquake was about nine times less energetic than the one in 1877 and was incapable of releasing all the stress on the fault, leaving open the possibility of another earthquake.

The Iquique earthquake took place on the northern portion of the subduction zone formed when the Nazca tectonic plate slides under the South American plate. This is one of the longest uninterrupted plate boundaries on the planet and the site of many earthquakes and volcanos. The 8.2 earthquake was foreshadowed by a systematic sequence of foreshocks recorded at 6.0, 6.5, 6.7 and 6.2 with each foreshock triggering the next until the main earthquake occurred.

These earthquakes relieved the stresses on some parts of the fault. Then the 8.2 earthquake relieved more stress, followed by a series of aftershocks in the range of 7.7. While the aftershocks did fill in some of the gaps left by the 8.2 earthquake, the large earthquake and aftershocks could not fill in the entire gap where the fault had not ruptured in a very long time. That area is unruptured and still under stress.

The foreshocks eased some of the built up stress on 60 to 100 miles of fault, and the main shock released stress on about 155 miles, but about 155 miles of fault remain unchanged, the researchers report today (Aug. 13) in Nature.

“There can still be a big earthquake there,” said Furlong. “It didn’t release the total hazard, but it told us something about this large earthquake area. That an 8.8 rupture doesn’t always happen.”

The researchers were able to do this analysis in near real time because of the availability of large computing power and previously laid groundwork.

The computing power allowed researchers to model the fault more accurately. In the past, subduction zones were modeled as if they were on a plane, but the plate that is subducting curves underneath the other plate creating a 3-dimensional fault line. The researchers used a model that accounted for this curving and so more accurately recreated the stresses on the real geology at the fault.

“One of the things the U.S. Geological Survey and we have been doing is characterizing the major tectonic settings,” said Furlong. “So when an earthquake is imminent, we don’t need a lot of time for the background.”

In essence, they are creating a library of information about earthquake faults and have completed the first level, a general set of information on areas such as Japan, South America and the Caribbean. Now they are creating the levels of north and south Japan or Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Knowing where the old earthquake occurred, how large it was and how long ago it happened, the researchers could look at the foreshocks, see how much stress they relieved and anticipate, at least in a small way, what would happen.

“This is what we need to do in the future in near real time for decision makers,” said Furl.

A new look at what’s in ‘fracking’ fluids raises red flags

Scientists are getting to the bottom of what's in fracking fluids — with some troubling results. -  Doug Duncan/U.S. Geological Survey
Scientists are getting to the bottom of what’s in fracking fluids — with some troubling results. – Doug Duncan/U.S. Geological Survey

As the oil and gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) proliferates, a new study on the contents of the fluids involved in the process raises concerns about several ingredients. The scientists presenting the work today at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) say that out of nearly 200 commonly used compounds, there’s very little known about the potential health risks of about one-third, and eight are toxic to mammals.

The meeting features nearly 12,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics and is being held here through Thursday by ACS, the world’s largest scientific society.

William Stringfellow, Ph.D., says he conducted the review of fracking contents to help resolve the public debate over the controversial drilling practice. Fracking involves injecting water with a mix of chemical additives into rock formations deep underground to promote the release of oil and gas. It has led to a natural gas boom in the U.S., but it has also stimulated major opposition and troubling reports of contaminated well water, as well as increased air pollution near drill sites.

“The industrial side was saying, ‘We’re just using food additives, basically making ice cream here,'” Stringfellow says. “On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?'”

To find out, Stringfellow’s team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of the Pacific scoured databases and reports to compile a list of substances commonly used in fracking. They include gelling agents to thicken the fluids, biocides to keep microbes from growing, sand to prop open tiny cracks in the rocks and compounds to prevent pipe corrosion.

What their analysis revealed was a little truth to both sides’ stories – with big caveats. Fracking fluids do contain many nontoxic and food-grade materials, as the industry asserts. But if something is edible or biodegradable, it doesn’t automatically mean it can be easily disposed of, Stringfellow notes.

“You can’t take a truckload of ice cream and dump it down the storm drain,” he says, building on the industry’s analogy. “Even ice cream manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down rather than releasing them directly into the environment.”

His team found that most fracking compounds will require treatment before being released. And, although not in the thousands as some critics suggest, the scientists identified eight substances, including biocides, that raised red flags. These eight compounds were identified as being particularly toxic to mammals.

“There are a number of chemicals, like corrosion inhibitors and biocides in particular, that are being used in reasonably high concentrations that potentially could have adverse effects,” Stringfellow says. “Biocides, for example, are designed to kill bacteria – it’s not a benign material.”

They’re also looking at the environmental impact of the fracking fluids, and they are finding that some have toxic effects on aquatic life.

In addition, for about one-third of the approximately 190 compounds the scientists identified as ingredients in various fracking formulas, the scientists found very little information about toxicity and physical and chemical properties.

“It should be a priority to try to close that data gap,” Stringfellow says.

A new look at what’s in ‘fracking’ fluids raises red flags

Scientists are getting to the bottom of what's in fracking fluids — with some troubling results. -  Doug Duncan/U.S. Geological Survey
Scientists are getting to the bottom of what’s in fracking fluids — with some troubling results. – Doug Duncan/U.S. Geological Survey

As the oil and gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) proliferates, a new study on the contents of the fluids involved in the process raises concerns about several ingredients. The scientists presenting the work today at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) say that out of nearly 200 commonly used compounds, there’s very little known about the potential health risks of about one-third, and eight are toxic to mammals.

The meeting features nearly 12,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics and is being held here through Thursday by ACS, the world’s largest scientific society.

William Stringfellow, Ph.D., says he conducted the review of fracking contents to help resolve the public debate over the controversial drilling practice. Fracking involves injecting water with a mix of chemical additives into rock formations deep underground to promote the release of oil and gas. It has led to a natural gas boom in the U.S., but it has also stimulated major opposition and troubling reports of contaminated well water, as well as increased air pollution near drill sites.

“The industrial side was saying, ‘We’re just using food additives, basically making ice cream here,'” Stringfellow says. “On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?'”

To find out, Stringfellow’s team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of the Pacific scoured databases and reports to compile a list of substances commonly used in fracking. They include gelling agents to thicken the fluids, biocides to keep microbes from growing, sand to prop open tiny cracks in the rocks and compounds to prevent pipe corrosion.

What their analysis revealed was a little truth to both sides’ stories – with big caveats. Fracking fluids do contain many nontoxic and food-grade materials, as the industry asserts. But if something is edible or biodegradable, it doesn’t automatically mean it can be easily disposed of, Stringfellow notes.

“You can’t take a truckload of ice cream and dump it down the storm drain,” he says, building on the industry’s analogy. “Even ice cream manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down rather than releasing them directly into the environment.”

His team found that most fracking compounds will require treatment before being released. And, although not in the thousands as some critics suggest, the scientists identified eight substances, including biocides, that raised red flags. These eight compounds were identified as being particularly toxic to mammals.

“There are a number of chemicals, like corrosion inhibitors and biocides in particular, that are being used in reasonably high concentrations that potentially could have adverse effects,” Stringfellow says. “Biocides, for example, are designed to kill bacteria – it’s not a benign material.”

They’re also looking at the environmental impact of the fracking fluids, and they are finding that some have toxic effects on aquatic life.

In addition, for about one-third of the approximately 190 compounds the scientists identified as ingredients in various fracking formulas, the scientists found very little information about toxicity and physical and chemical properties.

“It should be a priority to try to close that data gap,” Stringfellow says.

New tools reveal mysteries of an ancient Arctic terrane

This is a satellite image of northern and western Alaska, Bering Strait, and the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia. -  NASA Worldview satellite image, https://earthdata.nasa.gov/labs/worldview/.
This is a satellite image of northern and western Alaska, Bering Strait, and the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia. – NASA Worldview satellite image, https://earthdata.nasa.gov/labs/worldview/.

The evolution and origin of Earth’s Arctic realm and the nature, location, and age of its major tectonic boundaries remain subjects of considerable uncertainty. This new compilation of studies from The Geological Society of America demonstrates the power of modern research tools to penetrate the effects of orogenesis and reconstruct the area’s pre-deformational tectonic and paleogeographic history.

The largest piece of continental crust that plays a role in Arctic tectonics is the Arctic Alaska-Chukotka terrane or microplate. This microplate includes northern Alaska and northeastern-most Russia, along with the adjacent continental shelves. Because of its size, understanding its origin and movements during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic are critical components of tectonic and paleogeographic models.

This new GSA Special Paper, edited by Julie A. Dumoulin and Allison B. Till of the U.S. Geological Survey, examines the Arctic Alaska-Chukotka microplate from the Late Proterozoic (about 240 million years ago) to the Devonian (from 360 to 410 million years ago), and includes the first compelling evidence for a rift event that may have detached the Arctic Alaska-Chukotka microplate from the Timanide margin of Baltica.

New tools reveal mysteries of an ancient Arctic terrane

This is a satellite image of northern and western Alaska, Bering Strait, and the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia. -  NASA Worldview satellite image, https://earthdata.nasa.gov/labs/worldview/.
This is a satellite image of northern and western Alaska, Bering Strait, and the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia. – NASA Worldview satellite image, https://earthdata.nasa.gov/labs/worldview/.

The evolution and origin of Earth’s Arctic realm and the nature, location, and age of its major tectonic boundaries remain subjects of considerable uncertainty. This new compilation of studies from The Geological Society of America demonstrates the power of modern research tools to penetrate the effects of orogenesis and reconstruct the area’s pre-deformational tectonic and paleogeographic history.

The largest piece of continental crust that plays a role in Arctic tectonics is the Arctic Alaska-Chukotka terrane or microplate. This microplate includes northern Alaska and northeastern-most Russia, along with the adjacent continental shelves. Because of its size, understanding its origin and movements during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic are critical components of tectonic and paleogeographic models.

This new GSA Special Paper, edited by Julie A. Dumoulin and Allison B. Till of the U.S. Geological Survey, examines the Arctic Alaska-Chukotka microplate from the Late Proterozoic (about 240 million years ago) to the Devonian (from 360 to 410 million years ago), and includes the first compelling evidence for a rift event that may have detached the Arctic Alaska-Chukotka microplate from the Timanide margin of Baltica.

Ancient shellfish remains rewrite 10,000-year history of El Nino cycles

The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. -  M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier
The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. – M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier

The planet’s largest and most powerful driver of climate changes from one year to the next, the El Niño Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific Ocean, was widely thought to have been weaker in ancient times because of a different configuration of the Earth’s orbit. But scientists analyzing 25-foot piles of ancient shells have found that the El Niños 10,000 years ago were as strong and frequent as the ones we experience today.

The results, from the University of Washington and University of Montpellier, question how well computer models can reproduce historical El Niño cycles, or predict how they could change under future climates. The paper is now online and will appear in an upcoming issue of Science.

“We thought we understood what influences the El Niño mode of climate variation, and we’ve been able to show that we actually don’t understand it very well,” said Julian Sachs, a UW professor of oceanography.

The ancient shellfish feasts also upend a widely held interpretation of past climate.

“Our data contradicts the hypothesis that El Niño activity was very reduced 10,000 years ago, and then slowly increased since then,” said first author Matthieu Carré, who did the research as a UW postdoctoral researcher and now holds a faculty position at the University of Montpellier in France.

In 2007, while at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, Carré accompanied archaeologists to seven sites in coastal Peru. Together they sampled 25-foot-tall piles of shells from Mesodesma donacium clams eaten and then discarded over centuries into piles that archaeologists call middens.

While in graduate school, Carré had developed a technique to analyze shell layers to get ocean temperatures, using carbon dating of charcoal from fires to get the year, and the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the growth layers to get the water temperatures as the shell was forming.

The shells provide 1- to 3-year-long records of monthly temperature of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Peru. Combining layers of shells from each site gives water temperatures for intervals spanning 100 to 1,000 years during the past 10,000 years.

The new record shows that 10,000 years ago the El Niño cycles were strong, contradicting the current leading interpretations. Roughly 7,000 years ago the shells show a shift to the central Pacific of the most severe El Niño impacts, followed by a lull in the strength and occurrence of El Niño from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago.

One possible explanation for the surprising finding of a strong El Niño 10,000 years ago was that some other factor was compensating for the dampening effect expected from cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun during that period.

“The best candidate is the polar ice sheet, which was melting very fast in this period and may have increased El Niño activity by changing ocean currents,” Carré said.

Around 6,000 years ago most of the ice age floes would have finished melting, so the effect of Earth’s orbital geometry might have taken over then to cause the period of weak El Niños.

In previous studies, warm-water shells and evidence of flooding in Andean lakes had been interpreted as signs of a much weaker El Niño around 10,000 years ago.

The new data is more reliable, Carré said, for three reasons: the Peruvian coast is strongly affected by El Niño; the shells record ocean temperature, which is the most important parameter for the El Niño cycles; and the ability to record seasonal changes, the timescale at which El Niño can be observed.

“Climate models and a variety of datasets had concluded that El Niños were essentially nonexistent, did not occur, before 6,000 to 8,000 years ago,” Sachs said. “Our results very clearly show that this is not the case, and suggest that current understanding of the El Niño system is incomplete.

Ancient shellfish remains rewrite 10,000-year history of El Nino cycles

The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. -  M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier
The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. – M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier

The planet’s largest and most powerful driver of climate changes from one year to the next, the El Niño Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific Ocean, was widely thought to have been weaker in ancient times because of a different configuration of the Earth’s orbit. But scientists analyzing 25-foot piles of ancient shells have found that the El Niños 10,000 years ago were as strong and frequent as the ones we experience today.

The results, from the University of Washington and University of Montpellier, question how well computer models can reproduce historical El Niño cycles, or predict how they could change under future climates. The paper is now online and will appear in an upcoming issue of Science.

“We thought we understood what influences the El Niño mode of climate variation, and we’ve been able to show that we actually don’t understand it very well,” said Julian Sachs, a UW professor of oceanography.

The ancient shellfish feasts also upend a widely held interpretation of past climate.

“Our data contradicts the hypothesis that El Niño activity was very reduced 10,000 years ago, and then slowly increased since then,” said first author Matthieu Carré, who did the research as a UW postdoctoral researcher and now holds a faculty position at the University of Montpellier in France.

In 2007, while at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, Carré accompanied archaeologists to seven sites in coastal Peru. Together they sampled 25-foot-tall piles of shells from Mesodesma donacium clams eaten and then discarded over centuries into piles that archaeologists call middens.

While in graduate school, Carré had developed a technique to analyze shell layers to get ocean temperatures, using carbon dating of charcoal from fires to get the year, and the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the growth layers to get the water temperatures as the shell was forming.

The shells provide 1- to 3-year-long records of monthly temperature of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Peru. Combining layers of shells from each site gives water temperatures for intervals spanning 100 to 1,000 years during the past 10,000 years.

The new record shows that 10,000 years ago the El Niño cycles were strong, contradicting the current leading interpretations. Roughly 7,000 years ago the shells show a shift to the central Pacific of the most severe El Niño impacts, followed by a lull in the strength and occurrence of El Niño from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago.

One possible explanation for the surprising finding of a strong El Niño 10,000 years ago was that some other factor was compensating for the dampening effect expected from cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun during that period.

“The best candidate is the polar ice sheet, which was melting very fast in this period and may have increased El Niño activity by changing ocean currents,” Carré said.

Around 6,000 years ago most of the ice age floes would have finished melting, so the effect of Earth’s orbital geometry might have taken over then to cause the period of weak El Niños.

In previous studies, warm-water shells and evidence of flooding in Andean lakes had been interpreted as signs of a much weaker El Niño around 10,000 years ago.

The new data is more reliable, Carré said, for three reasons: the Peruvian coast is strongly affected by El Niño; the shells record ocean temperature, which is the most important parameter for the El Niño cycles; and the ability to record seasonal changes, the timescale at which El Niño can be observed.

“Climate models and a variety of datasets had concluded that El Niños were essentially nonexistent, did not occur, before 6,000 to 8,000 years ago,” Sachs said. “Our results very clearly show that this is not the case, and suggest that current understanding of the El Niño system is incomplete.