Scientists identify mechanism that accelerated the 2011 Japan earthquake

Stanford scientists have found evidence that sections of the fault responsible for the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake that devastated northern Japan in 2011 were relieving seismic stress at a gradually accelerating rate for years before the quake.

This “decoupling” process, in which the edges of two tectonic plates that are frictionally locked together slowly became unstuck, transferred stress to adjacent sections that were still locked. As a result, the quake, which was the most powerful ever recorded to hit Japan, may have occurred earlier than it might have otherwise, said Andreas Mavrommatis, a graduate student in Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences.

Mavrommatis and his advisor, Paul Segall, a professor of geophysics at Stanford, reached their conclusions after analyzing 15 years’ worth of GPS measurements from the Japanese island of Honshu. Their results were published earlier this year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“We looked at northeastern Japan, which has one of the densest and longest running high-precision GPS networks in the world,” Mavrommatis said.

Segall said, “The measurements indicated the plate boundary was gradually becoming less locked over time. That was surprising.”

The scientists will present their work, “Decadal-Scale Decoupling of the Japan Trench Prior to the 2011 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake from Geodetic and Repeating-Earthquake Observations,” Dec. 17 at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The talk will take place at 5 p.m. PT at the Moscone Convention Center in Moscone South, Room 306.

The pair’s hypothesis is further supported by a recent analysis they conducted of so-called repeating earthquakes offshore of northern Honshu. The small quakes, which were typically magnitude 3 or 4, occurred along the entire length of the fault line, but each one occurred at the same spot every few years. Furthermore, many of them were repeating not at a constant but an accelerating rate, the scientists found. This acceleration would be expected if the fault were becoming less locked over time, Mavrommatis said, because the decoupling process would have relieved pent-up stress along some sections of the fault but increased stress on adjacent sections.

“According to our model, the decoupling process would have had the effect of adding stress to the section of the fault that nucleated the Tohoku quake,” Segall said. “We suspect this could have accelerated the occurrence of the earthquake.”

The scientists caution that their results cannot be used to predict the occurrence of the next major earthquake in Japan, but it could shed light on the physical processes that operate on faults that generate the world’s largest quakes.

Re-thinking Southern California earthquake scenarios in Coachella Valley, San Andreas Fault

The Coachella Valley segment of the southernmost section of the San Andreas Fault in California has a high likelihood for a large rupture in the near future, since it has a recurrence interval of about 180 years but has not ruptured in over 300 years. -  UMass Amherst and Google Earth
The Coachella Valley segment of the southernmost section of the San Andreas Fault in California has a high likelihood for a large rupture in the near future, since it has a recurrence interval of about 180 years but has not ruptured in over 300 years. – UMass Amherst and Google Earth

New three-dimensional (3D) numerical modeling that captures far more geometric complexity of an active fault segment in southern California than any other, suggests that the overall earthquake hazard for towns on the west side of the Coachella Valley such as Palm Springs and Palm Desert may be slightly lower than previously believed.

New simulations of deformation on three alternative fault configurations for the Coachella Valley segment of the San Andreas Fault conducted by geoscientists Michele Cooke and Laura Fattaruso of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with Rebecca Dorsey of the University of Oregon, appear in the December issue of Geosphere.

The Coachella Valley segment is the southernmost section of the San Andreas Fault in California. It has a high likelihood for a large rupture in the near future, since it has a recurrence interval of about 180 years but has not ruptured in over 300 years, the authors point out.

The researchers acknowledge that their new modeling offers “a pretty controversial interpretation” of the data. Many geoscientists do not accept a dipping active fault geometry to the San Andreas Fault in the Coachella Valley, they say. Some argue that the data do not confirm the dipping structure. “Our contribution to this debate is that we add an uplift pattern to the data that support a dipping active fault and it rejects the other models,” say Cooke and colleagues.

Their new model yields an estimated 10 percent increase in shaking overall for the Coachella segment. But for the towns to the west of the fault where most people live, it yields decreased shaking due to the dipping geometry. It yields a doubling of shaking in mostly unpopulated areas east of the fault. “This isn’t a direct outcome of our work but an implication,” they add.

Cooke says, “Others have used a dipping San Andreas in their models but they didn’t include the degree of complexity that we did. By including the secondary faults within the Mecca Hills we more accurately capture the uplift pattern of the region.”

Fattaruso adds, “Others were comparing to different data sets, such as geodesy, and since we were comparing to uplift it is important that we have this complexity.” In this case, geodesy is the science of measuring and representing the Earth and its crustal motion, taking into account the competition of geological processes in 3D over time.

Most other models of deformation, stress, rupture and ground shaking have assumed that the southern San Andreas Fault is vertical, say Cooke and colleagues. However, seismic, imaging, aerial magnetometric surveys and GPS-based strain observations suggest that the fault dips 60 to 70 degrees toward the northeast, a hypothesis they set out to investigate.

Specifically, they explored three alternative geometric models of the fault’s Coachella Valley segment with added complexity such as including smaller faults in the nearby Indio and Mecca Hills. “We use localized uplift patterns in the Mecca Hills to assess the most plausible geometry for the San Andreas Fault in the Coachella Valley and better understand the interplay of fault geometry and deformation,” they write.

Cooke and colleagues say the fault structures in their favored model agree with distributions of local seismicity, and are consistent with geodetic observations of recent strain. “Crustal deformation models that neglect the northeast dip of the San Andreas Fault in the Coachella Valley will not replicate the ground shaking in the region and therefore inaccurately estimate seismic hazard,” they note.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Geologists shed light on formation of Alaska Range

Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. -  Syracuse University
Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. – Syracuse University

Geologists in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have recently figured out what has caused the Alaska Range to form the way it has and why the range boasts such an enigmatic topographic signature. The narrow mountain range is home to some of the world’s most dramatic topography, including 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a team of students and fellow scientists have been studying the Alaska Range along the Denali fault. They think they know why the fault is located where it is and what accounts for the alternating asymmetrical, mountain-scale topography along the fault.

Their findings were the subject of a recent paper in the journal Tectonics (American Geophysical Union, 2014).

In 2002, the Denali fault, which cuts across south-central Alaska, was the site of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake and was felt as far away as Texas and Louisiana. It was the largest earthquake of its kind in more than 150 years.

“Following the earthquake, researchers flocked to the area to examine the effects,” says Fitzgerald, who serves as professor of Earth Sciences and an associate dean for the College. “They were fascinated by how the frozen ground behaved; the many landslides [the earthquake] caused; how bridges responded; and how the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline survived, as it was engineered to do so.”

Geologists were also surprised by how the earthquake began on a previously unknown thrust-fault; then propagated eastward, along the Denali fault, and finally jumped onto another fault, hundreds of kilometers away.

“From our perspective, the earthquake has motivated analyses of why the highest mountains in the central Alaska Range occur south of the Denali fault and the highest mountains in the eastern Alaska Range occur north of the fault–something that has puzzled us for years,” Fitzgerald adds. “It’s been an enigma staring us in the face.”

He attributes the Alaska Range’s alternating topographic signatures to a myriad of factors: contrasting lithospheric strength between large terranes (i.e., distinctly different rock units); the location of the curved Denali fault; the transfer of strain inland from southern Alaska’s active plate margin; and the shape of the controlling former continental margin against weaker suture-zone rocks.

It’s no secret that Alaska is one of the most geologically active areas on the planet. For instance, scientists know that the North American Plate is currently overriding the Pacific Plate at the latter’s southern coast, while the Yakutat microplate is colliding with North America.

As a result of plate tectonics, Alaska is an amalgamation of terranes that have collided with the North American craton and have accreted to become part of North America.

Cratons are pieces of continents that have been largely stable for hundreds of millions of years.

Terranes often originate as volcanic islands (like those of Hawaii) and, after colliding with one another or a continent, are separated by large discrete faults. When terranes collide and accrete, they form a suture, also known as a collision zone, which is made up of weak, crushed rock. During deformation, suture-zone rocks usually deform first, especially if they are adjacent to a strong rock body.

“Technically, the Denali fault is what we’d call an ‘intercontinental right-lateral strike-slip fault system,'” says Fitzgerald, adding that a strike-slip fault occurs when rocks move horizontally past one another, usually on a vertical fault. “This motion includes a component of slip along the fault and a component of normal motion against the fault that creates mountains. Hence, the shape of the fault determines which of the two components is predominant and where mountains form.”

In Alaska, the shape of the accreted terranes generally controls the location of the Denali fault and the mountains that form along it, especially at the bends in the trace of the fault.

Fitzgerald: “Mount McKinley and the central Alaska Range lie within the concave curve of the Denali fault. There, higher topography and greater exhumation [uplift of rock] occur south of the Denali fault, exactly where you’d expect a mountain range to form, given the regional tectonics. In the eastern Alaska Range, higher topography and greater exhumation are found north of the fault, on its convex side–not an expected pattern at all and very puzzling.”

Using mapped surface geology, geophysical data, and thermochronology (i.e., time-temperature history of the rocks), Fitzgerald and colleagues have determined that much of Alaska’s uplift and deformation began some 25 million years ago, when the Yakutat microplate first started colliding with North America. The bold, glacier-clad peaks comprising the Alaska Range actually derive from within the aforementioned “weak suture-zone rocks” between the terranes.

While mountains are high and give the impression of strength, they are built largely from previously fractured rock units. Rock movement along the Denali fault drives the uplift of the mountains, which form at bends in the fault, where previously fractured suture-zone rocks are pinned against the stronger former North American continental margin.

“The patterns of deformation help us understand regional tectonics and the formation of the Alaska Range, which is fascinating to geologists and non-geologists alike,” says Fitzgerald. “Being able to determine patterns or how to reveal them, while others see chaos, is often the key to finding the answer to complex problems. … To us scientists, the real significance of this work is that it helps us understand the evolution of our planet, how faults and mountain belts form, and why earthquakes happen. It also provides a number of hypotheses about Alaskan tectonics and rock deformation that we can test, using the Alaska Range as our laboratory.”

In addition to Fitzgerald, the paper was co-authored by Sarah Roeske, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis; Jeff Benowitz, a research scientist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; Steven Riccio and Stephanie Perry, graduate students in Earth Sciences at Syracuse; and Phillip Armstrong, professor and chair of geological sciences at California State University, Fullerton.

Housed in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences offers graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities in crustal evolution and tectonics, environmental sciences and climate change, hydrogeology, sedimentology and paleolimnology, geochemistry, and paleobiology.

Mysterious Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid

The volcanic rocks of the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift play a prominent role in the natural beauty of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. -  Seth Stein, Northwestern University
The volcanic rocks of the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift play a prominent role in the natural beauty of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. – Seth Stein, Northwestern University

An international team of geologists has a new explanation for how the Midwest’s biggest geological feature — an ancient and giant 2,000-mile-long underground crack that starts in Lake Superior and runs south to Oklahoma and to Alabama — evolved.

Scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the University of Gottingen in Germany and the University of Oklahoma report that the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid, having formed in three stages: it started as an enormous narrow crack in the Earth’s crust; that space then filled with an unusually large amount of volcanic rock; and, finally, the igneous rocks were forced to the surface, forming the beautiful scenery seen today in the Lake Superior area of the Upper Midwest.

The rift produced some of the Midwest’s most interesting geology and scenery, but there has never been a good explanation for what caused it. Inspired by vacations to Lake Superior, Seth and Carol A. Stein, a husband-and-wife team from Northwestern and UIC, have been determined to learn more in recent years.

Their study, which utilized cutting-edge geologic software and seismic images of rock located below the Earth’s surface in areas of the rift, will be presented Oct. 20 at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver.

“The Midcontinent Rift is a very strange beast,” said the study’s lead author, Carol Stein, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UIC. “Rifts are long, narrow cracks splitting the Earth’s crust, with some volcanic rocks in them that rise to fill the cracks. Large igneous provinces, or LIPs, are huge pools of volcanic rocks poured out at the Earth’s surface. The Midcontinent Rift is both of these — like a hybrid animal.”

“Geologists call it a rift because it’s long and narrow,” explained Seth Stein, a co-author of the study, “but it’s got much more volcanic rock inside it than any other rift on a continent, so it’s also a LIP. We’ve been wondering for a long time how this could have happened.” He is the William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

This question is one of those that EarthScope, a major National Science Foundation program involving geologists from across the U.S., seeks to answer. In this case, the team used images of the Earth at depth from seismic experiments across Lake Superior and EarthScope surveys of other parts of the Midcontinent Rift. The images show the rock layers at depth, much as X-ray photos show the bones in people’s bodies.

In reviewing the images, the researchers found the Midcontinent Rift appeared to evolve in three stages.

“First, the rocks were pulled apart, forming a rift valley,” Carol Stein said. “As the rift was pulling apart, magma flowed into the developing crack. After about 10 million years, the crack stopped growing, but more magma kept pouring out on top. Older magma layers sunk under the weight of new magma, so the hole kept deepening. Eventually the magma ran out, leaving a large igneous province — a 20-mile-thick pile of volcanic rocks. Millions of years later, the rift got squeezed as a new supercontinent reassembled, which made the Earth’s crust under the rift thicker.”

To test this idea, the Steins turned to Jonas Kley, professor of geology at Germany’s Gottingen University, their host during a research year in Germany sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Kley used software that allows geologic time to run backwards. “We start with the rocks as they are today,” Kley explained, “and then undo movement on faults and vertical movements. It’s like reconstructing a car crash. When we’re done we have a picture of what happened and when. This lets us test ideas and see if they work.”

Kley’s analysis showed that the three-stage history made sense — the Midcontinent Rift started as a rift and then evolved into a large igneous province. The last stage brought rocks in the Lake Superior area to the surface.

Other parts of the picture fit together nicely, the Steins said. David Hindle, also from Gottingen University, used a computer model to show that the rift’s shape seen in the seismic images results from the crust bending under weight of magma.

Randy Keller, a professor and director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, found that the weight of the dense magma filling the rift explains the stronger pull of gravity measured above the rift. He points out that these variations in the gravity field are the major evidence used to map the extent of the rift.

“It’s funny,” Seth Stein mused. “Carol and I have been living in Chicago for more than 30 years. We often have gone up to Lake Superior for vacations but didn’t think much about the geology. It’s only in the past few years that we realized there’s a great story there and started working on it. There are many studies going on today, which will give more results in the next few years.”

The Steins now are working with other geologists to help park rangers and teachers tell this story to the public. For example, a good way to think about how rifts work is to observe what happens if you pull both ends of a Mars candy bar: the top chocolate layer breaks, and the inside stretches.

“Sometimes people think that exciting geology only happens in places like California,” Seth Stein said. “We hope results like this will encourage young Midwesterners to study geology and make even further advances.”

Hydraulic fracturing linked to earthquakes in Ohio

Hydraulic fracturing triggered a series of small earthquakes in 2013 on a previously unmapped fault in Harrison County, Ohio, according to a study published in the journal Seismological Research Letters (SRL).

Nearly 400 small earthquakes occurred between Oct. 1 and Dec. 13, 2013, including 10 “positive” magnitude earthquake, none of which were reported felt by the public. The 10 positive magnitude earthquakes, which ranged from magnitude 1.7 to 2.2, occurred between Oct. 2 and 19, coinciding with hydraulic fracturing operations at nearby wells.

This series of earthquakes is the first known instance of seismicity in the area.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method for extracting gas and oil from shale rock by injecting a high-pressure water mixture directed at the rock to release the gas inside. The process of hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the rock under high pressure to create cracks. The process of cracking rocks results in micro-earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing usually creates only small earthquakes, ones that have magnitude in the range of negative 3 (−3) to negative 1 (-1).

“Hydraulic fracturing has the potential to trigger earthquakes, and in this case, small ones that could not be felt, however the earthquakes were three orders of magnitude larger than normally expected,” said Paul Friberg, a seismologist with Instrumental Software Technologies, Inc. (ISTI) and a co-author of the study.

The earthquakes revealed an east-west trending fault that lies in the basement formation at approximately two miles deep and directly below the three horizontal gas wells. The EarthScope Transportable Array Network Facility identified the first earthquakes on Oct. 2, 2013, locating them south of Clendening Lake near the town of Uhrichsville, Ohio. A subsequent analysis identified 190 earthquakes during a 39-hour period on Oct. 1 and 2, just hours after hydraulic fracturing began on one of the wells.

The micro-seismicity varied, corresponding with the fracturing activity at the wells. The timing of the earthquakes, along with their tight linear clustering and similar waveform signals, suggest a unique source for the cause of the earthquakes — the hydraulic fracturing operation. The fracturing likely triggered slip on a pre-existing fault, though one that is located below the formation expected to confine the fracturing, according to the authors.

“As hydraulic fracturing operations explore new regions, more seismic monitoring will be needed since many faults remain unmapped.” Friberg co-authored the paper with Ilya Dricker, also with ISTI, and Glenda Besana-Ostman originally with Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and now with the Bureau of Reclamation at the U.S. Department of Interior.

Snail shells show high-rise plateau is much lower than it used to be

This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. -  Joel Saylor
This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. – Joel Saylor

The Tibetan Plateau in south-central Asia, because of its size, elevation and impact on climate, is one of the world’s greatest geological oddities.

At about 960,000 square miles it covers slightly more land area than Alaska, Texas and California combined, and its elevation is on the same scale as Mount Rainier in the Cascade Range of Washington state. Because it rises so high into the atmosphere, it helps bring monsoons over India and other nations to the south while the plateau itself remains generally arid.

For decades, geologists have debated when and how the plateau reached such lofty heights, some 14,000 feet above sea level, about half the elevation of the highest Himalayan peaks just south of the plateau.

But new research led by a University of Washington scientist appears to confirm an earlier improbable finding – at least one large area in southwest Tibet, the plateau’s Zhada Basin, actually lost 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation sometime in the Pliocene epoch.

“This basin is really high right now but we think it was a kilometer or more higher just 3 million to 4 million years ago,” said Katharine Huntington, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the research.

Co-authors are Joel Saylor of the University of Houston and Jay Quade and Adam Hudson, both of the University of Arizona. The paper was published online in August and will appear in a future print edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

The Zhada Basin has rugged terrain, with exposed deposits of ancient lake and river sediments that make fossil shells of gastropods such as snails easily accessible, and determining their age is relatively straightforward. The researchers studied shells dating from millions of years ago and from a variety of aquatic environments. They also collected modern shell and water samples from a variety of environments for comparison.

The work confirms results of a previous study involving Saylor and Quade that examined the ratio of heavy isotope oxygen-18 to light isotope oxygen-16 in ancient snail shells from the Zhada Basin. They found the ratios were very low, which suggested the basin had a higher elevation in the past.

Oxygen-18 levels decrease in precipitation at higher elevations in comparison with oxygen-16, so shells formed in lakes and rivers that collect precipitation at higher elevations should have a lower heavy-to-light oxygen ratio. However, those lower ratios depend on a number of other factors, including temperature, evaporation and precipitation source, which made it difficult to say with certainty whether the low ratios found in the ancient snail shells meant a loss of elevation in the Zhada Basin.

So the scientists also employed a technique called clumped isotope thermometry, which Huntington has used and worked to refine for several years, to determine the temperature of shell growth and get an independent estimate of elevation change in the basin.

Bonding, or “clumping” together, of heavy carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the carbonate of snail shells happens more readily at colder temperatures, and is measured using a tool called a mass spectrometer that provides data on the temperature of the lake or river water in which the snails lived.

The scientists found markedly greater “clumping,” as well as lower ratios of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in the ancient shells, indicating the shells formed at temperatures as much as 11 degrees Celsius (20 F) colder than average temperatures today, the equivalent of as much as 5,000 feet of elevation loss.

Just why the elevation decline happened is open to speculation. One possibility is that as faults in the region spread, the Zhada Basin lowered, Huntington said. It is unknown yet whether other parts of the southern plateau also lowered at the same time, but if elevation loss was widespread it could be because of broader fault spreading. It also is possible the crust thickened and forced large rock formations even deeper into the Earth, where they heated until they reached a consistency at which they could ooze out from beneath the crust, like toothpaste squeezed from the tube.

She noted that climate records from deep-sea fossils indicate Earth was significantly warmer when the cold Zhada Basin snail shells were formed.

“Our findings are a conservative estimate,” Huntington said. “No one can say this result is due to a colder climate, because if anything it should have been warmer.”

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.

New Oso report, rockfall in Yosemite, and earthquake models

From AGU’s blogs: Oso disaster had its roots in earlier landslides

A research team tasked with being some of the first scientists and engineers to evaluate extreme events has issued its findings on disastrous Oso, Washington, landslide. The report studies the conditions and causes related to the March 22 mudslide that killed 43 people and destroyed the Steelhead Haven neighborhood in Oso, Washington. The team from the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) Association, funded by the National Science Foundation, determined that intense rainfall in the three weeks before the slide likely was a major issue, but factors such as altered groundwater migration, weakened soil consistency because of previous landslides and changes in hillside stresses played key roles.

From this week’s Eos: Reducing Rockfall Risk in Yosemite National Park

The glacially sculpted granite walls of Yosemite Valley attract 4 million visitors a year, but rockfalls from these cliffs pose substantial hazards. Responding to new studies, the National Park Service recently took actions to reduce the human risk posed by rockfalls in Yosemite National Park.

From AGU’s journals: A new earthquake model may explain discrepancies in San Andreas fault slip

Investigating the earthquake hazards of the San Andreas Fault System requires an accurate understanding of accumulating stresses and the history of past earthquakes. Faults tend to go through an “earthquake cycle”-locking and accumulating stress, rupturing in an earthquake, and locking again in a well-accepted process known as “elastic rebound.” One of the key factors in preparing for California’s next “Big One” is estimating the fault slip rate, the speed at which one side of the San Andreas Fault is moving past the other.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways geoscientists study fault slip. Geologists formulate estimates by studying geologic features at key locations to study slip rates through time. Geodesists, scientists who measure the size and shape of the planet, use technologies like GPS and satellite radar interferometry to estimate the slip rate, estimates which often differ from the geologists’ estimations.

In a recent study by Tong et al., the authors develop a new three-dimensional viscoelastic earthquake cycle model that represents 41 major fault segments of the San Andreas Fault System. While previous research has suggested that there are discrepancies between the fault slip rates along the San Andreas as measured by geologic and geodetic means, the authors find that there are no significant differences between the two measures if the thickness of the tectonic plate and viscoelasticity are taken into account. The authors find that the geodetic slip rate depends on the plate thickness over the San Andreas, a variable lacking in previous research.

The team notes that of the 41 studied faults within the San Andreas Fault system, a small number do in fact have disagreements between the geologic and geodetic slip rates. These differences could be attributed to inadequate data coverage or to incomplete knowledge of the fault structures or the chronological sequence of past events.

Gas-charged fluids creating seismicity associated with a Louisiana sinkhole

Natural earthquakes and nuclear explosions produce seismic waves that register on seismic monitoring networks around the globe, allowing the scientific community to pinpoint the location of the events. In order to distinguish seismic waves produced by a variety of activities – from traffic to mining to explosions – scientists study the seismic waves generated by as many types of events as possible.

In August 2012, the emergence of a very large sinkhole at the Napoleonville Salt Dome in Louisiana offered University of California, Berkeley scientists the opportunity to detect, locate and analyze a rich sequence of 62 seismic events that occurred one day prior to its discovery.

In June 2012, residents of Bayou Corne reported frequent tremors and unusual gas bubbling in local surface water. The U.S. Geological Survey installed a temporary network of seismic stations, and on August 3, a large sinkhole was discovered close to the western edge of the salt dome.

In this study published by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), co-authors Douglas Dreger and Avinash Nayak, evaluated the data recorded by the seismic network during the 24 hours prior to the discovery of the sinkhole. They implemented a waveform scanning approach to continuously detect, locate and analyze the source of the seismic events at the sinkhole, which are located to the edge of the salt dome and above and to the west of the cavern near the sinkhole.

The point-source equivalent force system describing the motions at the seismic source (called moment tensor) showed similarities to seismic events produced by explosions and active geothermal and volcanic environments. But at the sinkhole, an influx of natural gas rather than hot magma may be responsible for elevating the pore pressure enough to destabilize pre-existing zones of weakness, such as fractures or faults at the edge of the salt dome.

Oklahoma quakes induced by wastewater injection, study finds

The dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma since 2009 is likely attributable to subsurface wastewater injection at just a handful of disposal wells, finds a new study to be published in the journal Science on July 3, 2014.

The research team was led by Katie Keranen, professor of geophysics at Cornell University, who says Oklahoma earthquakes constitute nearly half of all central and eastern U.S. seismicity from 2008 to 2013, many occurring in areas of high-rate water disposal.

“Induced seismicity is one of the primary challenges for expanded shale gas and unconventional hydrocarbon development. Our results provide insight into the process by which the earthquakes are induced and suggest that adherence to standard best practices may substantially reduce the risk of inducing seismicity,” said Keranen. “The best practices include avoiding wastewater disposal near major faults and the use of appropriate monitoring and mitigation strategies.”

The study also concluded:

  • Four of the highest-volume disposal wells in Oklahoma (~0.05% of wells) are capable of triggering ~20% of recent central U.S. earthquakes in a swarm covering nearly 2,000 square kilometers, as shown by analysis of modeled pore pressure increase at relocated earthquake hypocenters.

  • Earthquakes are induced at distances over 30 km from the disposal wells. These distances are far beyond existing criteria of 5 km from the well for diagnosis of induced earthquakes.

  • The area of increased pressure related to these wells continually expands, increasing the probability of encountering a larger fault and thus increasing the risk of triggering a higher-magnitude earthquake.

“Earthquake and subsurface pressure monitoring should be routinely conducted in regions of wastewater disposal and all data from those should be publicly accessible. This should also include detailed monitoring and reporting of pumping volumes and pressures,” said Keranen. ‘In many states the data are more difficult to obtain than for Oklahoma; databases should be standardized nationally. Independent quality assurance checks would increase confidence. ”