Study of Chile earthquake finds new rock structure that affects earthquake rupture

Scientists used computer models to track the path of seismic waves through the Earth and generate 3-D images,  These images revealed a new and previously jknknown rock structure in the Chile fault line. -  Stephen Hicks, University of Liverpool
Scientists used computer models to track the path of seismic waves through the Earth and generate 3-D images, These images revealed a new and previously jknknown rock structure in the Chile fault line. – Stephen Hicks, University of Liverpool

Researchers from the University of Liverpool have found an unusual mass of rock deep in the active fault line beneath Chile which influenced the rupture size of a massive earthquake that struck the region in 2010.

The geological structure, which was not previously known about, is unusually dense and large for this depth in the Earth’s crust. The body was revealed using 3-D seismic images of Earth’s interior based on the monitoring of vibrations on the Pacific seafloor caused by aftershocks from the magnitude 8.8 Chile earthquake. This imaging works in a similar way to CT scans that are used in hospitals.

Analysis of the 2010 earthquake also revealed that this structure played a key role in the movement of the fault, causing the rupture to suddenly slow down.

Seismologists think that the block of rock was once part of Earth’s mantle and may have formed around 220 million years ago, during the period of time known as the Triassic.

Liverpool Seismologist, Stephen Hicks from the School of Environmental Sciences, who led the research, said: “It was previously thought that dense geological bodies in an active fault zone may cause more movement of the fault during an earthquake.”

“However, our research suggests that these blocks of rock may in fact cause the earthquake rupture to suddenly slow down. But this slowing down can generate stronger shaking at the surface, which is more damaging to man-made structures.”

“It is now clear that ancient geology plays a big role in the generation of future earthquakes and their subsequent aftershocks.”

Professor Andreas Rietbrock, head of the Earthquake Seismology and Geodynamics research group added: “This work has clearly shown the potential of 3D ‘seismic’ images to further our understanding of the earthquake rupture process.

We are currently establishing the Liverpool Earth Observatory (LEO), which will allow us together with our international partners, to carry out similar studies in other tectonically active regions such as northern Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand and the northwest coast United States. This work is vital for understanding risk exposure in these countries from both ground shaking and tsunamis.”

Chile is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the sinking of tectonic plates generates many of the world’s largest earthquakes.

The 2010 magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile is one of the best-recorded earthquakes, giving seismologists the best insight to date into the ruptures of mega-quakes.


The research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, is published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Geologists dig into science around the globe, on land and at sea

University of Cincinnati geologists will be well represented among geoscientists from around the world at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver, Canada, and will feature geoscientists representing more than 40 different disciplines. The meeting will feature highlights of UC’s geological research that is taking place globally, from Chile to Costa Rica, Belize, Bulgaria, Scotland, Trinidad and a new project under development in the Canary Islands.

UC faculty and graduate students are lead or supporting authors on more than two dozen Earth Sciences-related research papers and/or PowerPoint and poster exhibitions at the GSA meeting.

The presentations also cover UC’s longtime and extensive exploration and findings in the Cincinnati Arch of the Ohio Valley, world-renowned for its treasure trove of paleontology – plant and animal fossils that were preserved when a shallow sea covered the region 450 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era.

Furthermore, in an effort to diversify the field of researchers in the Earth Sciences, a UC assistant professor of science education and geology, Christopher Atchison, was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation and the Society of Exploration Geophysics to lead a research field trip in Vancouver for students with disabilities. Graduate and undergraduate student participants will conduct the research on Oct. 18 and then join events at the GSA meeting. They’ll be guided by geoscience researchers representing the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Those guides include Atchison and Julie Hendricks, a UC special education major from Batavia, Ohio, who will be using her expertise in American Sign Language (ASL) to assist student researchers representing Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

The meeting will also formally introduce Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology, as the new president-elect of the national Paleontological Society Thomas Lowell, professor of geology, is a recently elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America – a recognition for producing a substantial body of research. Lowell joins colleagues Warren Huff, professor of geology, and Lewis Owen, professor and head of the Department of Geology, as GSA Fellows.

Here are highlights of the UC research to be presented at the GSA meeting Oct. 19-22:

Staying Put or Moving On? Researchers Develop Model to Identify Migrating Patterns of Different Species

Are plant and animal species what you might call lifelong residents – they never budge from the same place? That’s a relatively common belief in ecology and paleoecology – that classes of organisms tend to stay put over millions of years and either evolve or go extinct as the environment changes. UC researchers developed a series of numerical models simulating shifting habitats in fossil regions to compare whether species changed environments when factoring geological and other changes in the fossil record. They found that geologically driven changes in the quality of the fossil record did not distort the real ecological signal, and that most species maintained their particular habitat preferences through time. They did not evolve to adapt to changing environments, but rather, they migrated, following their preferred environments. That is to say, they did not stay in place geographically but by moving, they were able to track their favored habitats. Field research for the project was conducted in New York state as well as the paleontological-rich region of Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Ky.; and Indiana. Funding for the project was supported by The Paleontological Society; The Geological Society of America; The American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department’s Kenneth E. Caster Memorial Fund.

Presenter: Andrew Zaffos, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller, Carlton Brett

Pioneering Study Provides a Better Understanding of What Southern Ohio and Central Kentucky Looked Like Hundreds of Millions of Years Ago

The end of the Ordovician period resulted in one of the largest mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. T.J. Malgieri, a UC master’s student in geology, led this study examining the limestone and shales of the Upper Ordovician Period – the geologic Grant Lake Formation covering southern Ohio and central Kentucky – to recreate how the shoreline looked some 445 million years ago. In this pioneering study of mud cracks and deposits in the rocks, the researchers discovered that the shoreline existed to the south and that the water became deeper toward the north. By determining these ecological parameters, the ramp study provides a better understanding of environments during a time of significant ecological change. Malgieri says the approach can be applied to other basins throughout the world to create depth indicators in paeloenvironments.

Presenter: T.J. Malgieri, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Carlton Brett, Cameron Schalbach, Christopher Aucoin, UC; James Thomka (UC, University of Akron); Benjamin Dattilo, Indiana University Purdue University Ft. Wayne

UC Researchers Take a Unique Approach to Monitoring Groundwater Supplies Near Ohio Fracking Sites

A collaborative research project out of UC is examining effects of fracking on groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio. First launched in Carroll County in 2012, the team of researchers is examining methane levels and origins of methane in private wells and springs before, during and after the onset of fracking. The team travels to the region to take water samples four times a year.

Presenter: Claire Botner, a UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Amy Townsend-Small, UC assistant professor of geology

Sawing Through Seagrass to Reveal Clues to the Past

Kelsy Feser, a UC doctoral student in geology, is working at several sites around St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to see if human developments impact marine life. The research focuses on shells of snails and clams that have piled up on the sea floor for thousands of years. Digging through layers of thick seagrass beds on the ocean floor, Feser can examine deeper shells that were abundant thousands of years ago and compare them to shallower layers that include living clams and snails. Early analysis indicates a greater population of potentially pollution-tolerant mussels in an area near a landfill on the island, compared with shells from much earlier time periods. Feser is doing this sea grass analysis around additional sites including tourist resorts, an oil refinery, a power plant and a marina. Funding for the research is provided by the Paleontological Society, the GSA, the American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department.

Presenter: Kelsy Feser, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller

Turning to the Present to Understand the Past

In order to properly interpret changes in climate, vegetation, or animal populations over time, it is necessary to establish a comparative baseline. Stella Mosher, a UC geology master’s student, is studying stable carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes in modern vegetation from the Canary Islands in order to quantify modern climatic and environmental patterns. Her findings will provide a crucial foundation for future UC research on regional paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental shifts.

Presenter: Stella Mosher, graduate student in geology

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, assistant professor of geology; Yurena Yanes, research assistant professor of geology

A Study on the Impact of Sea Spray

Sulfur is an element of interest in both geology and archaeology, because it can reveal information about the diets of ancient cultures. This study takes a novel approach to studying how sea spray can affect the sulfur isotope values in plants on a small island, focusing on the island of Trinidad. Researchers collected leaves from different plant species to get their sulfur isotope value, exploring whether wind direction played a role in how plants were influenced by the marine water from sea spray. Vegetation was collected from the edges of the island to the deeply forested areas. The study found that sulfur isotope values deeper inland and on the calmer west coast were dramatically lower in indicating marine water than vegetation along the edges and the east coast. The findings can help indicate the foraging activities of humans and animals. Funding for the study was supported by the Geological Society of America, the UC Graduate Student Association and the UC Department of Geology.

Presenter: Janine Sparks, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, UC assistant professor, geology/anthropology; William Gilhooly III, assistant professor, Earth Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Proxy Wars – The Paleobiology Data Debate

For the past several decades, paleobiologists have built large databases containing information on fossil plants and animals of all geological ages to investigate the timing and extent of major changes in biodiversity – changes such as mass extinctions that have taken place throughout the history of life. Biodiversity researcher Arnold Miller says that in building these databases, it can be a challenge to accurately identify species in the geological record, so it has been common for researchers to instead study biodiversity trends using data compiled at broader levels of biological classification, including the genus level, under the assumption that these patterns are effective proxies for what would be observed among species if the data were available. Miller has been involved in construction of The Paleobiology Database, an extensive public online resource that contains global genus- and species-level data, now permitting a direct, novel look at the similarities and differences between patterns at these two levels. Miller’s discussion aims to set the record straight as to when researchers can effectively use a genus as a proxy for a species and also when it’s inappropriate. This research is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Presenter: Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology

A Novel New Method for Examining the Distribution of Pores in Rocks

Oil and gas companies take an interest in the porosity of sedimentary rocks because those open spaces can be filled with fuel resources. Companies involved with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are also interested in porosity because it could be a source for storing wastewater as a result of fracking. In this unique study, UC researchers made pore-size measurements similar to those used in crystal size distribution (CSD) theory to determine distribution of pores as a function of their sizes, using thin sections of rock. In addition to providing accurate porosity distribution at a given depth, their approach can be extended to evaluate variation of pore spaces as a function of depth in a drill core, percent of pores in each size range, and pore types and pore geometry. The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology provided the rock samples used in the study. Funding for the study was supported by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

Presenter: Ugurlu Ibrahim, master’s student in geology

Co-author: Attila Kilinc, professor of geology

Researchers Turn to 3-D Technology to Examine the Formation of Cliffband Landscapes

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. The method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – is used to study the formation of cliff landscapes in Colorado and Utah and to understand how the layered rock formations in the cliffs are affected by erosion.

Presenter: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Testing the Links Between Climate and Sedimentation in the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

The Atacama Desert is used as an analog for understanding the surface of Mars. In some localities, there has been no activity for millions of years. UC researchers have been working along the flank of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile, and this particular examination focuses on the large deposits of sediment that are transported down the plateau and gather at the base. The researchers are finding that their samples are not reflecting the million-year-old relics previously found on such expeditions, but may indicate more youthful activity possibly resulting from climatic events. The research is supported by a $273,634 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore glacio-geomorphic constraints on the climate history of subtropical northern Chile.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Uncovering the Explosive Mysteries Surrounding the Manganese of Northeast Bulgaria

UC’s geology collections hold minerals from field expeditions around the world, including manganese from the Obrochishte mines of northeastern Bulgaria. Found in the region’s sedimentary rock, manganese can be added to metals such as steel to improve strength. It’s widely believed that these manganese formations were the result of ocean water composition at the time the sediments were deposited in the ocean. In this presentation, UC researchers present new information on why they believe the manganese formations resulted from volcanic eruptions, perhaps during the Rupelian stage of the geologic time scale, when bentonite clay minerals were formed. The presentation evolved from an advance class project last spring under the direction of Warren Huff, a UC professor of geology.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Warren Huff, UC professor of geology; Christopher Aucoin; Michael Harrell; Thomas Malgieri; Barry Maynard; Cameron Schwalbach; Ibrahim Ugurlu; Antony Winrod

Two UC researchers will chair sessions at the GSA meeting: Doctoral student Gary Motz will chair the session, “Topics in Paleoecology: Modern Analogues and Ancient Systems,” on Oct. 19. Matt Vrazo, also a doctoral student in geology, is chairing “Paleontology: Trace Fossils, Taphonomy and Exceptional Preservation” on Oct. 21, and will present, “Taphonomic and Ecological Controls on Eurypterid Lagerstäten: A Model for Preservation in the Mid-Paleozoic.”


UC’s nationally ranked Department of Geology conducts field research around the world in areas spanning paleontology, quaternary geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, tectonics, environmental geology and biogeochemistry.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 26,500 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind.

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.

Great earthquakes, water under pressure, high risk

The largest earthquakes occur where oceanic plates move beneath continents. Obviously, water trapped in the boundary between both plates has a dominant influence on the earthquake rupture process. Analyzing the great Chile earthquake of February, 27th, 2010, a group of scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and from Liverpool University found that the water pressure in the pores of the rocks making up the plate boundary zone takes the key role (Nature Geoscience, 28.03.2014).

The stress build-up before an earthquake and the magnitude of subsequent seismic energy release are substantially controlled by the mechanical coupling between both plates. Studies of recent great earthquakes have revealed that the lateral extent of the rupture and magnitude of these events are fundamentally controlled by the stress build-up along the subduction plate interface. Stress build-up and its lateral distribution in turn are dependent on the distribution and pressure of fluids along the plate interface.

“We combined observations of several geoscience disciplines – geodesy, seismology, petrology. In addition, we have a unique opportunity in Chile that our natural observatory there provides us with long time series of data,” says Onno Oncken, director of the GFZ-Department “Geodynamics and Geomaterials”. Earth observation (Geodesy) using GPS technology and radar interferometry today allows a detailed mapping of mechanical coupling at the plate boundary from the Earth’s surface. A complementary image of the rock properties at depth is provided by seismology. Earthquake data yield a high resolution three-dimensional image of seismic wave speeds and their variations in the plate interface region. Data on fluid pressure and rock properties, on the other hand, are available from laboratory measurements. All these data had been acquired shortly before the great Chile earthquake of February 2010 struck with a magnitude of 8.8.

“For the first time, our results allow us to map the spatial distribution of the fluid pressure with unprecedented resolution showing how they control mechanical locking and subsequent seismic energy release”, explains Professor Oncken. “Zones of changed seismic wave speeds reflect zones of reduced mechanical coupling between plates”. This state supports creep along the plate interface. In turn, high mechanical locking is promoted in lower pore fluid pressure domains. It is these locked domains that subsequently ruptured during the Chile earthquake releasing most seismic energy causing destruction at the Earth’s surface and tsunami waves. The authors suggest the spatial pore fluid pressure variations to be related to oceanic water accumulated in an altered oceanic fracture zone within the Pacific oceanic plate. Upon subduction of the latter beneath South America the fluid volumes are released and trapped along the overlying plate interface, leading to increasing pore fluid pressures. This study provides a powerful tool to monitor the physical state of a plate interface and to forecast its seismic potential.

Global map to predict giant earthquakes

A team of international researchers, led by Monash University’s Associate Professor Wouter Schellart, have developed a new global map of subduction zones, illustrating which ones are predicted to be capable of generating giant earthquakes and which ones are not.

The new research, published in the journal Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, comes nine years after the giant earthquake and tsunami in Sumatra in December 2004, which devastated the region and many other areas surrounding the Indian Ocean, and killed more than 200,000 people.

Since then two other giant earthquakes have occurred at subduction zones, one in Chile in February 2010 and one in Japan in March 2011, which both caused massive destruction, killed many thousands of people and resulted in billions of dollars of damage.

Most earthquakes occur at the boundaries between tectonic plates that cover the Earth’s surface. The largest earthquakes on Earth only occur at subduction zones, plate boundaries where one plate sinks (subducts) below the other into the Earth’s interior. So far, seismologists have recorded giant earthquakes for only a limited number of subduction zone segments. But accurate seismological records go back to only ~1900, and the recurrence time of giant earthquakes can be many hundreds of years.

“The main question is, are all subduction segments capable of generating giant earthquakes, or only some of them? And if only a limited number of them, then how can we identify these,” Dr Schellart said.

Dr Schellart, of the School of Geosciences, and Professor Nick Rawlinson from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland used earthquake data going back to 1900 and data from subduction zones to map the main characteristics of all active subduction zones on Earth. They investigated if those subduction segments that have experienced a giant earthquake share commonalities in their physical, geometrical and geological properties.

They found that the main indicators include the style of deformation in the plate overlying the subduction zone, the level of stress at the subduction zone, the dip angle of the subduction zone, as well as the curvature of the subduction zone plate boundary and the rate at which it moves.

Through these findings Dr Schellart has identified several subduction zone regions capable of generating giant earthquakes, including the Lesser Antilles, Mexico-Central America, Greece, the Makran, Sunda, North Sulawesi and Hikurangi.

“For the Australian region subduction zones of particular significance are the Sunda subduction zone, running from the Andaman Islands along Sumatra and Java to Sumba, and the Hikurangi subduction segment offshore the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Our research predicts that these zones are capable of producing giant earthquakes,” Dr Schellart said.

“Our work also predicts that several other subduction segments that surround eastern Australia (New Britain, San Cristobal, New Hebrides, Tonga, Puysegur), are not capable of producing giant earthquakes.”

What drives aftershocks?

On 27 February 2010 an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 struck South-Central Chile near the town of Maule. The main shock displaced the subduction interface by up to 16 meters. Like usually after strong earthquakes a series of aftershocks occurred in the region with decreasing size over the next months. A surprising result came from an afterslip study: Up to 2 meters additional slip occurred along the plate interface within 420 days only, in a pulse like fashion and without associated seismicity. An international research group lead by GFZ analysed the main shock as well as the following postseismic phase with a dense network of instruments including more than 60 high-resolution GPS stations (Earth and Planetary Science Letters ,Dec. 01, 2013).

The aftershocks and the now found “silent” afterslip are key to understand the processes occurring after strong earthquakes. The GPS data in combination with seismological data allowed for the first time a comparative analysis: Are after-shocks triggered solely by stress transfer from the main shock or are additional mechanisms active? ?Our results suggest, that the classic view of the stress re-laxation due to aftershocks are too simple” says Jonathan Bedford from GFZ to the new observation: ?Areas with large stress transfer do not correlate with af-tershocks in all magnitude classes as hitherto assumed and stress shadows show surprisingly high seismic activity.

A conclusion is that local processes which are not detectable at the surface by GPS monitoring along the plate interface have a significant effect on the local stress field. Pressurized fluids in the crust and mantle could be the agent here. As suspected previously, the main and aftershocks might have generated perme-abilities in the source region which are explored by hydrous fluids. This effects the local stress field triggering aftershocks rather independently from the large scale, main shock induced stress transfer. The present study provides evidences for such a mechanism. Volume (3D) seismic tomography which is sensitive to fluid pressure changes in combination with GPS monitoring will allow to better monitor the evolution of such processes.

The main shock was due to a rupture of the interface between the Nasca and the South American plates. Aftershocks are associated with hazards as they can be of similar size as the main shock and, in contrast to the latter, much shallower in the crust.

Molten magma can survive in upper crust for hundreds of millennia

The formations in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park, are an example of  silica-rich volcanic rock. -  Sarah Gelman/University of Washington
The formations in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park, are an example of silica-rich volcanic rock. – Sarah Gelman/University of Washington

Reservoirs of silica-rich magma – the kind that causes the most explosive volcanic eruptions – can persist in Earth’s upper crust for hundreds of thousands of years without triggering an eruption, according to new University of Washington modeling research.

That means an area known to have experienced a massive volcanic eruption in the past, such as Yellowstone National Park, could have a large pool of magma festering beneath it and still not be close to going off as it did 600,000 years ago.

“You might expect to see a stewing magma chamber for a long period of time and it doesn’t necessarily mean an eruption is imminent,” said Sarah Gelman, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences.

Recent research models have suggested that reservoirs of silica-rich magma, or molten rock, form on and survive for geologically short time scales – in the tens of thousands of years – in the Earth’s cold upper crust before they solidify. They also suggested that the magma had to be injected into the Earth’s crust at a high rate to reach a large enough volume and pressure to cause an eruption.

But Gelman and her collaborators took the models further, incorporating changes in the crystallization behavior of silica-rich magma in the upper crust and temperature-dependent heat conductivity. They found that the magma could accumulate more slowly and remain molten for a much longer period than the models previously suggested.

Gelman is the lead author of a paper explaining the research published in the July edition of Geology. Co-authors are Francisco Gutiérrez, a former UW doctoral student now with Universidad de Chile in Santiago, and Olivier Bachmann, a former UW faculty member now with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

There are two different kinds of magma and their relationship to one another is unclear. Plutonic magma freezes in the Earth’s crust and never erupts, but rather becomes a craggy granite formation like those commonly seen in Yosemite National Park. Volcanic magma is associated with eruptions, whether continuous “oozing” types of eruption such as Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano or more explosive eruptions such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines or Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

Some scientists have suggested that plutonic formations are what remain in the crust after major eruptions eject volcanic material. Gelman believes it is possible that magma chambers in the Earth’s crust could consist of a core of partially molten material feeding volcanoes surrounded by more crystalline regions that ultimately turn into plutonic rock. It is also possible the two rock types develop independently, but those questions remain to be answered, she said.

The new work suggests that molten magma reservoirs in the crust can persist for far longer than some scientists believe. Silica content is a way of judging how the magma has been affected by being in the crust, Gelman said. As the magma is forced up a column from lower in the Earth to the crust, it begins to crystallize. Crystals start to drop out as the magma moves higher, leaving the remaining molten rock with higher silica content.

“These time scales are in the hundreds of thousands, even up to a million, years and these chambers can sit there for that long,” she said.

Even if the molten magma begins to solidify before it erupts, that is a long process, she added. As the magma cools, more crystals form giving the rock a kind of mushy consistency. It is still molten and capable of erupting, but it will behave differently than magma that is much hotter and has fewer crystals.

The implications are significant for volcanic “arcs,” found near subduction zones where one of Earth’s tectonic plates is diving beneath another. Arcs are found in various parts of the world, including the Andes Mountains of South America and the Cascades Range of the Pacific Northwest.

Scientists have developed techniques to detect magma pools beneath these arcs, but they cannot determine how long the reservoirs have been there. Because volcanic magma becomes more silica-rich with time, its explosive potential increases.

“If you see melt in an area, it’s important to know how long that melt has been around to determine whether there is eruptive potential or not,” Gelman said. “If you image it today, does that mean it could not have been there 300,000 years ago? Previous models have said it couldn’t have been. Our model says it could. That doesn’t mean it was there, but it could have been there.”

‘Highway from hell’ fueled Costa Rican volcano

Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht analyzed crystals formed as Irazú's magma cooled to establish how fast it traveled. -  Kim Martineau
Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht analyzed crystals formed as Irazú’s magma cooled to establish how fast it traveled. – Kim Martineau

If some volcanoes operate on geologic timescales, Costa Rica’s Irazú had something of a short fuse. In a new study in the journal Nature, scientists suggest that the 1960s eruption of Costa Rica’s largest stratovolcano was triggered by magma rising from the mantle over a few short months, rather than thousands of years or more, as many scientists have thought. The study is the latest to suggest that deep, hot magma can set off an eruption fairly quickly, potentially providing an extra tool for detecting an oncoming volcanic disaster.

“If we had had seismic instruments in the area at the time we could have seen these deep magmas coming,” said the study’s lead author, Philipp Ruprecht, a volcanologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We could have had an early warning of months, instead of days or weeks.”

Towering more than 10,000 feet and covering almost 200 square miles, Irazú erupts about every 20 years or less, with varying degrees of damage. When it awakened in 1963, it erupted for two years, killing at least 20 people and burying hundreds of homes in mud and ash. Its last eruption, in 1994, did little damage.

Irazú sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where oceanic crust is slowly sinking beneath the continents, producing some of earth’s most spectacular fireworks. Conventional wisdom holds that the mantle magma feeding those eruptions rises and lingers for long periods of time in a mixing chamber several miles below the volcano. But ash from Irazú’s prolonged explosion is the latest to suggest that some magma may travel directly from the upper mantle, covering more than 20 miles in a few months.

“There has to be a conduit from the mantle to the magma chamber,” said study co-author Terry Plank, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty. “We like to call it the highway from hell.”

Their evidence comes from crystals of the mineral olivine separated from the ashes of Irazú’s 1963-1965 eruption, collected on a 2010 expedition to the volcano. As magma rising from the mantle cools, it forms crystals that preserve the conditions in which they formed. Unexpectedly, Irazú’s crystals revealed spikes of nickel, a trace element found in the mantle. The spikes told the researchers that some of Irazú’s erupted magma was so fresh the nickel had not had a chance to diffuse.

“The study provides one more piece of evidence that it’s possible to get magma from the mantle to the surface in very short order,” said John Pallister, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in Vancouver, Wash. “It tells us there’s a potentially shorter time span we need to worry about.”

Deep, fast-rising magma has been linked to other big events. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed so much gas and ash into the atmosphere that it cooled Earth’s climate. In the weeks before the eruption, seismographs recorded hundreds of deep earthquakes that USGS geologist Randall White later attributed to magma rising from the mantle-crust boundary. In 2010, a chain of eruptions at Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that caused widespread flight cancellations also indicated that some magma was coming from down deep. Small earthquakes set off by the eruptions suggested that the magma in Eyjafjallajökull’s last two explosions originated 12 miles and 15 miles below the surface, according to a 2012 study by University of Cambridge researcher Jon Tarasewicz in Geophysical Research Letters.

Volcanoes give off many warning signs before a blow-up. Their cones bulge with magma. They vent carbon dioxide and sulfur into the air, and throw off enough heat that satellites can detect their changing temperature. Below ground, tremors and other rumblings can be detected by seismographs. When Indonesia’s Mount Merapi roared to life in late October 2010, officials led a mass evacuation later credited with saving as many as 20,000 lives.

Still, the forecasting of volcanic eruptions is not an exact science. Even if more seismographs could be placed along the flanks of volcanoes to detect deep earthquakes, it is unclear if scientists would be able to translate the rumblings into a projected eruption date. Most problematically, many apparent warning signs do not lead to an eruption, putting officials in a bind over whether to evacuate nearby residents.

“[Several months] leaves a lot of room for error,” said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University who writes the “Eruptions” blog for Wired magazine. “In volcanic hazards you have very few shots to get people to leave.”

Scientists may be able to narrow the window by continuing to look for patterns between eruptions and the earthquakes that precede them. The Nature study also provides a real-world constraint for modeling how fast magma travels to the surface.

“If this interpretation is correct, you start having a speed limit that your models of magma transport have to catch,” said Tom Sisson, a USGS volcanologist based at Menlo Park, Calif.

Olivine minerals with nickel spikes similar to Irazú’s have been found in the ashes of arc volcanoes in Mexico, Siberia and the Cascades of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, said Lamont geochemist Susanne Straub, whose ideas inspired the study. “It’s clearly not a local phenomenon,” she said. The researchers are currently analyzing crystals from past volcanic eruptions in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Chile and Tonga, but are unsure how many will bear Irazú’s fast-rising magma signature. “Some may be capable of producing highways from hell and some may not,” said Ruprecht.

Distant quakes trigger tremors at US waste-injection sites, says study

Large earthquakes from distant parts of the globe are setting off tremors around waste-fluid injection wells in the central United States, says a new study. Furthermore, such triggering of minor quakes by distant events could be precursors to larger events at sites where pressure from waste injection has pushed faults close to failure, say researchers.

Among the sites covered: a set of injection wells near Prague, Okla., where the study says a huge earthquake in Chile on Feb. 27, 2010 triggered a mid-size quake less than a day later, followed by months of smaller tremors. This culminated in probably the largest quake yet associated with waste injection, a magnitude 5.7 event which shook Prague on Nov. 6, 2011. Earthquakes off Japan in 2011, and Sumatra in 2012, similarly set off mid-size tremors around injection wells in western Texas and southern Colorado, says the study. The paper appears this week in the leading journal Science, along with a series of other articles on how humans may be influencing earthquakes.

“The fluids are driving the faults to their tipping point,” said lead author Nicholas van der Elst, a postdoctoral researcher at Columba University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The remote triggering by big earthquakes is an indication the area is critically stressed.”

Tremors triggered by distant large earthquakes have been identified before, especially in places like Yellowstone National Park and some volcanically active subduction zones offshore, where subsurface water superheated by magma can weaken faults, making them highly vulnerable to seismic waves passing by from somewhere else. The study in Science adds a new twist by linking this natural phenomenon to faults that have been weakened by human activity.

A surge in U.S. energy production in the last decade or so has sparked what appears to be a rise in small to mid-sized earthquakes in the United States. Large amounts of water are used both to crack open rocks to release natural gas through hydrofracking, and to coax oil and gas from underground wells using conventional techniques. After the gas and oil have been extracted, the brine and chemical-laced water must be disposed of, and is often pumped back underground elsewhere, sometimes causing earthquakes.

From a catalog of past earthquake recordings, van der Elst and his colleagues found that faults near wastewater-injection sites in and around Prague, Snyder, Tex., and Trinidad, Colo., were approaching a critical state when big earthquakes far away triggered a rise in local earthquakes. Injection at the three sites had been ongoing for years, and the researchers hypothesize that passing surface waves from the big events caused small pressure changes on faults, triggering smaller earthquakes.

“These passing seismic waves are like a stress test,” said study coauthor Heather Savage, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty. “If the number of small earthquakes increases, it could indicate that faults are becoming critically stressed and might soon host a larger earthquake.”

The 2010 magnitude 8.8 Chile quake, which killed more than 500 people, sent surface waves rippling across the planet, triggering a magnitude 4.1 quake near Prague 16 hours later, the study says. The activity near Prague continued until the magnitude 5.7 quake on Nov. 6, 2011 that destroyed 14 homes and injured two people. A study earlier this year led by seismologist Katie Keranen, also a coauthor of the new study, now at Cornell University, found that the first rupture occurred less than 650 feet away from active injection wells. In April 2012, a magnitude 8.6 earthquake off Sumatra triggered another swarm of earthquakes in the same place. The pumping of fluid into the field continues to this day, along with a pattern of small quakes.

The 2010 Chile quake also set off a swarm of earthquakes on the Colorado-New Mexico border, in Trinidad, near wells where wastewater used to extract methane from coal beds had been injected, the study says. The swarm was followed more than a year later, on Aug. 22 2011, by a magnitude 5.3 quake that damaged dozens of buildings. A steady series of earthquakes had already struck Trinidad in the past, including a magnitude 4.6 quake in 2001 that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has investigated for links to wastewater injection.

The new study found also that Japan’s devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011 triggered a swarm of earthquakes in the west Texas town of Snyder, where injection of fluid to extract oil from the nearby Cogdell fields has been setting off earthquakes for years, according to a 1989 study in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. About six months after the Japan quake, a magnitude 4.5 quake struck Snyder.

The idea that seismic activity can be triggered by separate earthquakes taking place faraway was once controversial. One of the first cases to be documented was the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that shook California’s Mojave Desert in 1992, near the town of Landers, setting off a series of distant events in regions with active hot springs, geysers and volcanic vents. The largest was a magnitude 5.6 quake beneath Little Skull Mountain in southern Nevada, 150 miles away; the farthest, a series of tiny earthquakes north of Yellowstone caldera, according to a 1993 study in Science led by USGS geophysicist David Hill.

In 2002, the magnitude 7.9 Denali earthquake in Alaska triggered a series of earthquakes at Yellowstone, nearly 2,000 miles away, throwing off the schedules of some of its most predictable geysers, according to a 2004 study in Geology led by Stephan Husen, a seismologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. The Denali quake also triggered bursts of slow tremors in and around California’s San Andreas, San Jacinto and Calaveras faults, according to a 2008 study in Science led by USGS geophysicist Joan Gomberg.

“We’ve known for at least 20 years that shaking from large, distant earthquakes can trigger seismicity in places with naturally high fluid pressure, like hydrothermal fields,” said study coauthor Geoffrey Abers, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty. “We’re now seeing earthquakes in places where humans are raising pore pressure.”

The new study may be the first to find evidence of triggered earthquakes on faults critically stressed by waste injection. If it can be replicated and extended to other sites at risk of manmade earthquakes it could “help us understand where the stresses are,” said William Ellsworth, an expert on human-induced earthquakes with the USGS who was not involved in the study.

In the same issue of Science, Ellsworth reviews the recent upswing in earthquakes in the central United States. The region averaged 21 small to mid-sized earthquakes each year from the late 1960s through 2000. But in 2001, that number began to climb, reaching a high of 188 earthquakes in 2011, he writes. The risk of setting off earthquakes by injecting fluid underground has been known since at least the 1960s, when injection at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver was suspended after a magnitude 4.8 quake or greater struck nearby-the largest tied to wastewater disposal until the one near Prague, Okla. In a report last year, the National Academy of Sciences called for further research to “understand, limit and respond [to]” seismic events induced by human activity.

Earthquake acoustics can indicate if a massive tsunami is imminent, Stanford researchers find

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake occurred 43 miles off the shore of Japan. The earthquake generated an unexpectedly massive tsunami that washed over eastern Japan roughly 30 minutes later, killing more than 15,800 people and injuring more than 6,100. More than 2,600 people are still unaccounted for.

Now, computer simulations by Stanford scientists reveal that sound waves in the ocean produced by the earthquake probably reached land tens of minutes before the tsunami. If correctly interpreted, they could have offered a warning that a large tsunami was on the way.

Although various systems can detect undersea earthquakes, they can’t reliably tell which will form a tsunami, or predict the size of the wave. There are ocean-based devices that can sense an oncoming tsunami, but they typically provide only a few minutes of advance warning.

Because the sound from a seismic event will reach land well before the water itself, the researchers suggest that identifying the specific acoustic signature of tsunami-generating earthquakes could lead to a faster-acting warning system for massive tsunamis.

Discovering the signal

The finding was something of a surprise. The earthquake’s epicenter had been traced to the underwater Japan Trench, a subduction zone about 40 miles east of Tohoku, the northeastern region of Japan’s larger island. Based on existing knowledge of earthquakes in this area, seismologists puzzled over why the earthquake rupture propagated from the underground fault all the way up to the seafloor, creating a massive upward thrust that resulted in the tsunami.

Direct observations of the fault were scarce, so Eric Dunham, an assistant professor of geophysics in the School of Earth Sciences, and Jeremy Kozdon, a postdoctoral researcher working with Dunham, began using the cluster of supercomputers at Stanford’s Center for Computational Earth and Environmental Science (CEES) to simulate how the tremors moved through the crust and ocean.

The researchers built a high-resolution model that incorporated the known geologic features of the Japan Trench and used CEES simulations to identify possible earthquake rupture histories compatible with the available data.

Retroactively, the models accurately predicted the seafloor uplift seen in the earthquake, which is directly related to tsunami wave heights, and also simulated sound waves that propagated within the ocean.

In addition to valuable insight into the seismic events as they likely occurred during the 2011 earthquake, the researchers identified the specific fault conditions necessary for ruptures to reach the seafloor and create large tsunamis.

The model also generated acoustic data; an interesting revelation of the simulation was that tsunamigenic surface-breaking ruptures, like the 2011 earthquake, produce higher amplitude ocean acoustic waves than those that do not.

The model showed how those sound waves would have traveled through the water and indicated that they reached shore 15 to 20 minutes before the tsunami.

“We’ve found that there’s a strong correlation between the amplitude of the sound waves and the tsunami wave heights,” Dunham said. “Sound waves propagate through water 10 times faster than the tsunami waves, so we can have knowledge of what’s happening a hundred miles offshore within minutes of an earthquake occurring. We could know whether a tsunami is coming, how large it will be and when it will arrive.”

Worldwide application

The team’s model could apply to tsunami-forming fault zones around the world, though the characteristics of telltale acoustic signature might vary depending on the geology of the local environment. The crustal composition and orientation of faults off the coasts of Japan, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and Chile differ greatly.

“The ideal situation would be to analyze lots of measurements from major events and eventually be able to say, ‘this is the signal’,” said Kozdon, who is now an assistant professor of applied mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate School. “Fortunately, these catastrophic earthquakes don’t happen frequently, but we can input these site specific characteristics into computer models – such as those made possible with the CEES cluster – in the hopes of identifying acoustic signatures that indicates whether or not an earthquake has generated a large tsunami.”

Dunham and Kozdon pointed out that identifying a tsunami signature doesn’t complete the warning system. Underwater microphones called hydrophones would need to be deployed on the seafloor or on buoys to detect the signal, which would then need to be analyzed to confirm a threat, both of which could be costly. Policymakers would also need to work with scientists to settle on the degree of certainty needed before pulling the alarm.

If these points can be worked out, though, the technique could help provide precious minutes for an evacuation.

The study is detailed in the current issue of the journal the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.