Dynamic stressing of a global system of faults results in rare seismic silence

In the global aftershock zone that followed the major April 2012 Indian Ocean earthquake, seismologists noticed an unusual pattern – a dynamic “stress shadow,” or period of seismic silence when some faults near failure were temporarily rendered incapable of a large rupture.

The magnitude (M) 8.6 earthquake, a strike-slip event at intraoceanic tectonic plates, caused global seismic rates of M≥4.5 to spike for several days, even at distances tens of thousands of kilometers from the mainshock site. But beginning two weeks after the mainshock, the rate of M≥6.5 seismic activity subsequently dropped to zero for the next 95 days.

Why did this rare period of quiet occur?

In a paper published today in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), Fred Pollitz of the U.S. Geological Survey and co-authors suggests that the Indian Ocean earthquake caused short-term dynamic stressing of a global system of faults. Across the planet, there are faults that are “close to failure” and ready to rupture. It may be, suggests Pollitz and his colleagues, that a large quake encourages short-term triggering of these close-to-failure faults but also relieves some of the stress that has built up along these faults. Large magnitude events would not occur until tectonic movement loads stress back on to the faults at the ready-to-fail levels they reached before the main shock.

Using a statistical model of global seismicity, Pollitz and his colleagues show that a transient seismic perturbation of the size of the April 2012 global aftershock would inhibit rupture in 88 percent of their possible M≥6.5 earthquake fault sources over the next 95 days, regardless of how close they were to failure beforehand.

This surprising finding, say the authors, challenges the previously held notion that dynamic stresses can only increase earthquake rates rather than inhibit them. But there are still mysteries about this process; for example, the global rate of M≥4.5 and M≥5.5 shocks did not decrease along with the larger shocks.

Rising mountains dried out Central Asia, scientists say

A record of ancient rainfall teased from long-buried sediments in Mongolia is challenging the popular idea that the arid conditions prevalent in Central Asia today were caused by the ancient uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Instead, Stanford scientists say the formation of two lesser mountain ranges, the Hangay and the Altai, may have been the dominant drivers of climate in the region, leading to the expansion of Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi. The findings will be presented on Thursday, Dec. 12, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

“These results have major implications for understanding the dominant factors behind modern-day Central Asia’s extremely arid climate and the role of mountain ranges in altering regional climate,” said Page Chamberlain, a professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford.

Scientists previously thought that the formation of the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan plateau around 45 million years ago shaped Asia’s driest environments.

“The traditional explanation has been that the uplift of the Himalayas blocked air from the Indian Ocean from reaching central Asia,” said Jeremy Caves, a doctoral student in Chamberlain’s terrestrial paleoclimate research group who was involved in the study.

This process was thought to have created a distinct rain shadow that led to wetter climates in India and Nepal and drier climates in Central Asia. Similarly, the elevation of the Tibetan Plateau was thought to have triggered an atmospheric process called subsidence, in which a mass of air heated by a high elevation slowly sinks into Central Asia.

“The falling air suppresses convective systems such as thunderstorms, and the result is you get really dry environments,” Caves said.

This long-accepted model of how Central Asia’s arid environments were created mostly ignores, however, the existence of the Altai and Hangay, two northern mountain ranges.

Searching for answers


To investigate the effects of the smaller ranges on the regional climate, Caves and his colleagues from Stanford and Rocky Mountain College in Montana traveled to Mongolia in 2011 and 2012 and collected samples of ancient soil, as well as stream and lake sediments from remote sites in the central, southwestern and western parts of the country.

The team carefully chose its sites by scouring the scientific literature for studies of the region conducted by pioneering researchers in past decades.

“A lot of the papers were by Polish and Russian scientists who went there to look for dinosaur fossils,” said Hari Mix, a doctoral student at Stanford who also participated in the research. “Indeed, at many of the sites we visited, there were dinosaur fossils just lying around.”

The earlier researchers recorded the ages and locations of the rocks they excavated as part of their own investigations; Caves and his team used those age estimates to select the most promising sites for their own study.

At each site, the team bagged sediment samples that were later analyzed to determine their carbon isotope content. The relative level of carbon isotopes present in a soil sample is related to the productivity of plants growing in the soil, which is itself dependent on the annual rainfall. Thus, by measuring carbon isotope amounts from different sediment samples of different ages, the team was able to reconstruct past precipitation levels.

An ancient wet period


The new data suggest that rainfall in central and southwestern Mongolia had decreased by 50 to 90 percent in the last several tens of million of years.

“Right now, precipitation in Mongolia is about 5 inches annually,” Caves said. “To explain our data, rainfall had to decrease from 10 inches a year or more to its current value over the last 10 to 30 million years.”

That means that much of Mongolia and Central Asia were still relatively wet even after the formation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau 45 million years ago. The data show that it wasn’t until about 30 million years ago, when the Hangay Mountains first formed, that rainfall started to decrease. The region began drying out even faster about 5 million to 10 million years ago, when the Altai Mountains began to rise.

The scientists hypothesize that once they formed, the Hangay and Altai ranges created rain shadows of their own that blocked moisture from entering Central Asia.

“As a result, the northern and western sides of these ranges are wet, while the southern and eastern sides are dry,” Caves said.

The team is not discounting the effect of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau entirely, because portions of the Gobi Desert likely already existed before the Hangay or Altai began forming.

“What these smaller mountains did was expand the Gobi north and west into Mongolia,” Caves said.

The uplift of the Hangay and Altai may have had other, more far-reaching implications as well, Caves said. For example, westerly winds in Asia slam up against the Altai today, creating strong cyclonic winds in the process. Under the right conditions, the cyclones pick up large amounts of dust as they snake across the Gobi Desert. That dust can be lofted across the Pacific Ocean and even reach California, where it serves as microscopic seeds for developing raindrops.

The origins of these cyclonic winds, as well as substantial dust storms in China today, may correlate with uplift of the Altai, Caves said. His team plans to return to Mongolia and Kazakhstan next summer to collect more samples and to use climate models to test whether the Altai are responsible for the start of the large dust storms.

“If the Altai are a key part of regulating Central Asia’s climate, we can go and look for evidence of it in the past,” Caves said.

Sea level influenced tropical climate during the last ice age

The exposed Sunda Shelf during glacial times greatly affected the atmospheric circulation. The shelf is shown on the left for present-day as the light-blue submerged areas between Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Thailand, and on the right for the last ice age as the green exposed area. -  Pedro DiNezio
The exposed Sunda Shelf during glacial times greatly affected the atmospheric circulation. The shelf is shown on the left for present-day as the light-blue submerged areas between Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Thailand, and on the right for the last ice age as the green exposed area. – Pedro DiNezio

Scientists look at past climates to learn about climate change and the ability to simulate it with computer models. One region that has received a great deal of attention is the Indo-Pacific warm pool, the vast pool of warm water stretching along the equator from Africa to the western Pacific Ocean.

In a new study, Pedro DiNezio of the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Jessica Tierney of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution investigated preserved geological clues (called “proxies”) of rainfall patterns during the last ice age when the planet was dramatically colder than today. They compared these patterns with computer model simulations in order to find a physical explanation for the patterns inferred from the proxies.

Their study, which appears in the May 19, online edition of Nature Geoscience, not only reveals unique patterns of rainfall change over the Indo-Pacific warm pool, but also shows that they were caused by the effect of lowered sea level on the configuration of the Indonesian archipelago.

“For our research,” explains lead-author Pedro DiNezio at the International Pacific Research Center, “we compared the climate of the ice age with our recent warmer climate. We analyzed about 100 proxy records of rainfall and salinity stretching from the tropical western Pacific to the western Indian Ocean and eastern Africa. Rainfall and salinity signals recorded in geological sediments can tell us much about past changes in atmospheric circulation over land and the ocean respectively.”

“Our comparisons show that, as many scientists expected, much of the Indo-Pacific warm pool was drier during this glacial period compared with today. But, counter to some theories, several regions, such as the western Pacific and the western Indian Ocean, especially eastern Africa, were wetter,” adds co-author Jessica Tierney from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

In the second step, the scientists matched these rainfall and salinity patterns with simulations from 12 state-of-the-art climate models that are used to also predict future climate change. For this matching they applied a method of categorical data comparison called the ‘Cohen’s kappa’ statistic. Though widely used in the medical field, this method has not yet been used to match geological climate signals with climate model simulations.

“We were taken aback that only one model out of the 12 showed statistical agreement with the proxy-inferred patterns of the rainfall changes. This model, though, agrees well with both the rainfall and salinity indicators – two entirely independent sets of proxy data covering distinct areas of the tropics,” says DiNezio.

The model reveals that the dry climate during the glacial period was driven by reduced convection over a region of the warm pool called the Sunda Shelf. Today the shelf is submerged beneath the Gulf of Thailand, but was above sea level during the glacial period, when sea level was about 120 m lower.

“The exposure of the Sunda Shelf greatly weakened convection over the warm pool, with far-reaching impacts on the large-scale circulation and on rainfall patterns from Africa to the western Pacific and northern Australia,” explains DiNezio.

The main weakness of the other models, according to the authors, is their limited ability to simulate convection, the vertical air motions that lift humid air into the atmosphere. Differences in the way each model simulates convection may explain why the results for the glacial period are so different.

“Our research resolves a decades-old question of what the response of tropical climate was to glaciation,” concludes DiNezio. “The study, moreover, presents a fine benchmark for assessing the ability of climate models to simulate the response of tropical convection to altered land masses and global temperatures.

Indian Ocean sea-level rise threatens coastal areas

Indian Ocean sea levels are rising unevenly and threatening coastal areas and islands. Sea-level rise is especially high along the coastlines of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java. - Credit: NASA
Indian Ocean sea levels are rising unevenly and threatening coastal areas and islands. Sea-level rise is especially high along the coastlines of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java. – Credit: NASA

Indian Ocean sea levels are rising unevenly and threatening residents in some densely populated coastal areas and islands, a new study concludes.

The study, led by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., finds that the sea-level rise is at least partly a result of climate change.

Sea-level rise is particularly high along the coastlines of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, as well as the islands of Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java, the authors found.

The rise–which may aggravate monsoon flooding in Bangladesh and India–could have future impacts on both regional and global climate.

The key player in the process is the Indo-Pacific warm pool, an enormous, bathtub-shaped area spanning a huge area of the tropical oceans stretching from the east coast of Africa west to the International Date Line in the Pacific.

The warm pool has heated by about 1 degree Fahrenheit, or 0.5 degrees Celsius, in the past 50 years, primarily because of human-generated emissions in greenhouses gases.

“Our results from this study imply that if future anthropogenic warming effects in the Indo-Pacific warm pool dominate natural variability, mid-ocean islands such as the Mascarenhas Archipelago, coasts of Indonesia, Sumatra and the north Indian Ocean may experience significantly more sea-level rise than the global average,” says scientist Weiqing Han of CU and lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.

While several areas in the Indian Ocean region are experiencing sea-level rise, sea level is lowering in other areas. The study indicated that the Seychelles Islands and Zanzibar off Tanzania’s coastline show the largest sea level drop.

“Global sea-level patterns are not geographically uniform,” says NCAR scientist Gerald Meehl, a co-author of the paper. “Sea-level rise in some areas correlates with sea-level fall in other areas.”

Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NCAR’s sponsor, as well as the Department of Energy and NASA.

“This work is a step forward towards getting improved estimates of sea-level changes in one of the most heavily populated regions of the globe,” says Eric Itsweire, director of NSF’s physical oceanography program.

“Quantifying the heat and fresh water balance, as well as the large-scale circulation changes, in the Indo-Pacific warm pool through the use of observations and numerical models is crucial to understanding the subtle sea-level changes occurring in that region,” Itsweire say.

The patterns of sea-level change are driven by the combined enhancement of two primary atmospheric wind patterns known as the Hadley circulation and the Walker circulation.

The Hadley circulation in the Indian Ocean is dominated by air currents rising above strongly heated tropical waters near the equator and flowing poleward at upper levels, then sinking to the ocean in the subtropics and causing surface air to flow back toward the equator.

The Indian Ocean’s Walker circulation causes air to rise and flow westward at upper levels, sink to the surface and then flow eastward back toward the Indo-Pacific warm pool.

“The combined enhancement of the Hadley and Walker circulation form a distinct surface wind pattern that drives specific sea-level patterns,” Han says.

In their paper, the authors write that “our new results show that human-caused changes of atmospheric and oceanic circulation over the Indian Ocean region–which have not been studied previously–are the major cause for the regional variability of sea-level change.”

The study indicates that in order to anticipate global sea-level change, researchers also need to know the specifics of regional sea-level changes.

“It is important for us to understand the regional changes of the sea level, which will have effects on coastal and island regions,” says NCAR scientist Aixue Hu.

The research team used several sophisticated ocean and climate models for the study, including the Parallel Ocean Program–the ocean component of the widely used Community Climate System Model, which is supported by NCAR and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

In addition, the team used a wind-driven, linear ocean model for the study.

The complex circulation patterns in the Indian Ocean may also affect precipitation by forcing even more atmospheric air down to the surface in Indian Ocean subtropical regions than normal, Han speculates.

“This may favor a weakening of atmospheric convection in subtropics, which may increase rainfall in the eastern tropical regions of the Indian Ocean and drought in the western equatorial Indian Ocean region, including east Africa,” Han says.

Sea levels rising in parts of Indian Ocean, according to new study

Rising sea levels in parts of the Indian Ocean appear to be at least partly the result of rising greenhouse emissions. -  University of Colorado
Rising sea levels in parts of the Indian Ocean appear to be at least partly the result of rising greenhouse emissions. – University of Colorado

Newly detected rising sea levels in parts of the Indian Ocean, including the coastlines of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java, appear to be at least partly a result of human-induced increases of atmospheric greenhouse gases, says a study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The study, which combined sea surface measurements going back to the 1960s and satellite observations, indicates anthropogenic climate warming likely is amplifying regional sea rise changes in parts of the Indian Ocean, threatening inhabitants of some coastal areas and islands, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Weiqing Han, lead study author. The sea level rise — which may aggravate monsoon flooding in Bangladesh and India — could have far-reaching impacts on both future regional and global climate.

The key player in the process is the Indo-Pacific warm pool, an enormous, bathtub-shaped area of the tropical oceans stretching from the east coast of Africa west to the International Date Line in the Pacific. The warm pool has heated by about 1 degree Fahrenheit, or 0.5 degrees Celsius, in the past 50 years, primarily caused by human-generated increases of greenhouse gases, said Han.

“Our results from this study imply that if future anthropogenic warming effects in the Indo-Pacific warm pool dominate natural variability, mid-ocean islands such as the Mascarenhas Archipelago, coasts of Indonesia, Sumatra and the north Indian Ocean may experience significantly more sea level rise than the global average,” said Han of CU-Boulder’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department.

A paper on the subject was published in this week’s issue of Nature Geoscience. Co-authors included Balaji Rajagopalan, Xiao-Wei Quan, Jih-wang Wang and Laurie Trenary of CU-Boulder, Gerald Meehl, John Fasullo, Aixue Hu, William Large and Stephen Yeager of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Jialin Lin of Ohio State University, and Alan Walcraft and Toshiaki Shinoda of the Naval Research Laboratory in Mississippi.

While a number of areas in the Indian Ocean region are showing sea level rise, the study also indicated the Seychelles Islands and Zanzibar off Tanzania’s coastline show the largest sea level drop. Global sea level patterns are not geographically uniform, and sea rise in some areas correlate with sea level fall in other areas, said NCAR’s Meehl.

The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest ocean and makes up about 20 percent of the water on Earth’s surface. The ocean is bounded on the west by East Africa, on the north by India, on the east by Indochina and Australia, and on the south by the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica.

The patterns of sea level change are driven by the combined enhancement of two primary atmospheric wind patterns known as the Hadley circulation and the Walker circulation. The Hadley circulation in the Indian Ocean is dominated by air currents rising above strongly heated tropical waters near the equator and flowing poleward, then sinking to the ocean in the subtropics and causing surface air to flow back toward the equator.

The Indian Ocean’s Walker circulation causes air to rise and flow westward at upper levels, sink to the surface and then flow eastward back toward the Indo-Pacific warm pool. “The combined enhancement of the Hadley and Walker circulation form a distinct surface wind pattern that drives specific sea level patterns,” said Han.

The international research team used several different sophisticated ocean and climate models for the study, including the Parallel Ocean Program — the ocean component of NCAR’s widely used Community Climate System Model. In addition, the team used a wind-driven, linear ocean model for the study.

“Our new results show that human-caused changes of atmospheric and oceanic circulation over the Indian Ocean region — which have not been studied previously — are the major cause for the regional variability of sea level change,” wrote the authors in Nature Geoscience.

Han said that based on all-season data records, there is no significant sea level rise around the Maldives. But when the team looked at winter season data only, the Maldives show significant sea level rise, a cause for concern. The smallest Asian country, the Maldives is made up of more than 1,000 islands — about 200 of which are inhabited by about 300,000 people — and are on average only about five feet above sea level.

The complex circulation patterns in the Indian Ocean may also affect precipitation by forcing even more atmospheric air down to the surface in Indian Ocean subtropical regions than normal, Han speculated. “This may favor a weakening of atmospheric convection in the subtropics, which may increase rainfall in the eastern tropical regions of the Indian Ocean and increase drought in the western equatorial Indian Ocean region, including east Africa,” Han said.

The new study indicates that in order to document sea level change on a global scale, researchers also need to know the specifics of regional sea level changes that will be important for coastal and island regions, said NCAR’s Hu. Along the coasts of the northern Indian Ocean, seas have risen by an average of about 0.5 inches, or 13 millimeters, per decade.

“It is important for us to understand the regional changes of the sea level, which will have effects on coastal and island regions,” said Hu.

NASA data show some African drought linked to warmer Indian Ocean





Sea surface temperatures and land vegetation over the Indian Ocean are seen below in a visualization created with data from 1994 to 2005 from the Pathfinder satellite dataset. Credit: NASA
Sea surface temperatures and land vegetation over the Indian Ocean are seen below in a visualization created with data from 1994 to 2005 from the Pathfinder satellite dataset. Credit: NASA

A new study, co-funded by NASA, has identified a link between a warming Indian Ocean and less rainfall in eastern and southern Africa. Computer models and observations show a decline in rainfall, with implications for the region’s food security.



Rainfall in eastern Africa during the rainy season, which runs from March through May, has declined about 15 percent since the 1980s, according to records from ground stations and satellites. Statistical analyses show that this decline is due to irregularities in the transport of moisture between the ocean and land, brought about by rising Indian Ocean temperatures, according to research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This interdisciplinary study was organized to support U.S. Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network.



“The last 10 to 15 years have seen particularly dangerous declines in rainfall in sensitive ecosystems in East Africa, such as Somalia and eastern Ethiopia,” said Molly Brown of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., a co-author of the study. “We wanted to know if the trend would continue or if it would start getting wetter.”



To find out, the team analyzed historical seasonal rainfall data over the Indian Ocean and the eastern seaboard of Africa from 1950 to 2005. The NASA Global Precipitation Climatology Project’s rainfall dataset provided a series of data covering both the land and the oceans. They found that declines in rainfall in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe were linked to increases in rainfall over the ocean.



The team used computer models that describe the atmosphere and historical climate data to identify and validate the source of this link. Lead author Chris Funk of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues showed that the movement of moisture onshore was disrupted by increased rainfall over the ocean.



Funk and colleagues used a computer model from the National Center for Atmospheric Research to confirm their findings. The combination of evidence from models and historical data strongly suggest that human-caused warming of the Indian Ocean leads to an increase of rainfall over the ocean, which in turn adds energy to the atmosphere. Models showed that indeed, the added energy could create a weather pattern that reduces the flow of moisture onshore and bring dry air down over the African continent, reducing rainfall.





Arrows show the simulated movement of moisture, and blue to red colors indicate variations in cool to warm sea surface temperatures. Credit: Mathew Barlow/University of Massachusetts
Arrows show the simulated movement of moisture, and blue to red colors indicate variations in cool to warm sea surface temperatures. Credit: Mathew Barlow/University of Massachusetts

Next, the team investigated whether or not the decline in rainfall over eastern Africa would continue. Under guidance from researchers at USGS, which co-funded the study, the team looked at 11 climate models to simulate rainfall changes in the future. Ten of the 11 models agreed that though 2050, rainfall over the Indian Ocean would continue to increase – depriving Africa’s eastern seaboard of rainfall.



“We can be quite certain that the decline in rainfall has been substantial and will continue to be,” Funk said. “This 15 percent decrease every 20-25 years is likely to continue.”



The trend toward dryer rainy seasons in eastern and southern Africa directly impacts agricultural productivity. To evaluate how potential future rainfall scenarios and shifts in agriculture could affect undernourishment, the team came up with a “food-balance indicator” model. The model considers factors such as growing-season rainfall, fertilizer, seed use, crop area and population to estimate the number of undernourished people a region can anticipate.



Continuing along a “business as usual” scenario – with current trends in declining rainfall and agricultural capacity continuing as it is currently to 2030, the team found that the number of undernourished people will increase by more than 50 percent in eastern Africa.



Still, the food-balance indicator also showed that in the face of a continuation of the current downward trend in rainfall, even modest increases in agricultural capacity could reduce the number of undernourished people by 40 percent.



“A strong commitment to agricultural development by both African nations and the international community could lead fairly quickly to a more food-secure Africa,” Funk said.