New study finds oceans arrived early to Earth

In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line -- the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the 'snow line' (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. -  Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line — the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the ‘snow line’ (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. – Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Earth is known as the Blue Planet because of its oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface and are home to the world’s greatest diversity of life. While water is essential for life on the planet, the answers to two key questions have eluded us: where did Earth’s water come from and when?

While some hypothesize that water came late to Earth, well after the planet had formed, findings from a new study led by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) significantly move back the clock for the first evidence of water on Earth and in the inner solar system.

“The answer to one of the basic questions is that our oceans were always here. We didn’t get them from a late process, as was previously thought,” said Adam Sarafian, the lead author of the paper published Oct. 31, 2014, in the journal Science and a MIT/WHOI Joint Program student in the Geology and Geophysics Department.

One school of thought was that planets originally formed dry, due to the high-energy, high-impact process of planet formation, and that the water came later from sources such as comets or “wet” asteroids, which are largely composed of ices and gases.

“With giant asteroids and meteors colliding, there’s a lot of destruction,” said Horst Marschall, a geologist at WHOI and coauthor of the paper. “Some people have argued that any water molecules that were present as the planets were forming would have evaporated or been blown off into space, and that surface water as it exists on our planet today, must have come much, much later—hundreds of millions of years later.”

The study’s authors turned to another potential source of Earth’s water— carbonaceous chondrites. The most primitive known meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, were formed in the same swirl of dust, grit, ice and gasses that gave rise to the sun some 4.6 billion years ago, well before the planets were formed.

“These primitive meteorites resemble the bulk solar system composition,” said WHOI geologist and coauthor Sune Nielsen. “They have quite a lot of water in them, and have been thought of before as candidates for the origin of Earth’s water.

In order to determine the source of water in planetary bodies, scientists measure the ratio between the two stable isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and hydrogen. Different regions of the solar system are characterized by highly variable ratios of these isotopes. The study’s authors knew the ratio for carbonaceous chondrites and reasoned that if they could compare that to an object that was known to crystallize while Earth was actively accreting then they could gauge when water appeared on Earth.

To test this hypothesis, the research team, which also includes Francis McCubbin from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico and Brian Monteleone of WHOI, utilized meteorite samples provided by NASA from the asteroid 4-Vesta. The asteroid 4-Vesta, which formed in the same region of the solar system as Earth, has a surface of basaltic rock—frozen lava. These basaltic meteorites from 4-Vesta are known as eucrites and carry a unique signature of one of the oldest hydrogen reservoirs in the solar system. Their age—approximately 14 million years after the solar system formed—makes them ideal for determining the source of water in the inner solar system at a time when Earth was in its main building phase. The researchers analyzed five different samples at the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility—a state-of-the-art national facility housed at WHOI that utilizes secondary ion mass spectrometers. This is the first time hydrogen isotopes have been measured in eucrite meteorites.

The measurements show that 4-Vesta contains the same hydrogen isotopic composition as carbonaceous chondrites, which is also that of Earth. That, combined with nitrogen isotope data, points to carbonaceous chondrites as the most likely common source of water.

“The study shows that Earth’s water most likely accreted at the same time as the rock. The planet formed as a wet planet with water on the surface,” Marschall said.

While the findings don’t preclude a late addition of water on Earth, it shows that it wasn’t necessary since the right amount and composition of water was present at a very early stage.

“An implication of that is that life on our planet could have started to begin very early,” added Nielsen. “Knowing that water came early to the inner solar system also means that the other inner planets could have been wet early and evolved life before they became the harsh environments they are today.

Scientists discover carbonate rocks are unrecognized methane sink

Since the first undersea methane seep was discovered 30 years ago, scientists have meticulously analyzed and measured how microbes in the seafloor sediments consume the greenhouse gas methane as part of understanding how the Earth works.

The sediment-based microbes form an important methane “sink,” preventing much of the chemical from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation. As a byproduct of this process, the microbes create a type of rock known as authigenic carbonate, which while interesting to scientists was not thought to be involved in the processing of methane.

That is no longer the case. A team of scientists has discovered that these authigenic carbonate rocks also contain vast amounts of active microbes that take up methane. The results of their study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, were reported today in the journal Nature Communications.

“No one had really examined these rocks as living habitats before,” noted Andrew Thurber, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-author on the paper. “It was just assumed that they were inactive. In previous studies, we had seen remnants of microbes in the rocks – DNA and lipids – but we thought they were relics of past activity. We didn’t know they were active.

“This goes to show how the global methane process is still rather poorly understood,” Thurber added.

Lead author Jeffrey Marlow of the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues studied samples from authigenic compounds off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest (Hydrate Ridge), northern California (Eel River Basin) and central America (the Costa Rica margin). The rocks range in size and distribution from small pebbles to carbonate “pavement” stretching dozens of square miles.

“Methane-derived carbonates represent a large volume within many seep systems and finding active methane-consuming archaea and bacteria in the interior of these carbonate rocks extends the known habitat for methane-consuming microorganisms beyond the relatively thin layer of sediment that may overlay a carbonate mound,” said Marlow, a geobiology graduate student in the lab of Victoria Orphan of Caltech.

These assemblages are also found in the Gulf of Mexico as well as off Chile, New Zealand, Africa, Europe – “and pretty much every ocean basin in the world,” noted Thurber, an assistant professor (senior research) in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The study is important, scientists say, because the rock-based microbes potentially may consume a huge amount of methane. The microbes were less active than those found in the sediment, but were more abundant – and the areas they inhabit are extensive, making their importance potential enormous. Studies have found that approximately 3-6 percent of the methane in the atmosphere is from marine sources – and this number is so low due to microbes in the ocean sediments consuming some 60-90 percent of the methane that would otherwise escape.

Now those ratios will have to be re-examined to determine how much of the methane sink can be attributed to microbes in rocks versus those in sediments. The distinction is important, the researchers say, because it is an unrecognized sink for a potentially very important greenhouse gas.

“We found that these carbonate rocks located in areas of active methane seeps are themselves more active,” Thurber said. “Rocks located in comparatively inactive regions had little microbial activity. However, they can quickly activate when methane becomes available.

“In some ways, these rocks are like armies waiting in the wings to be called upon when needed to absorb methane.”

The ocean contains vast amounts of methane, which has long been a concern to scientists. Marine reservoirs of methane are estimated to total more than 455 gigatons and may be as much as 10,000 gigatons carbon in methane. A gigaton is approximate 1.1 billion tons.

By contrast, all of the planet’s gas and oil deposits are thought to total about 200-300 gigatons of carbon.

Wastewater injection is culprit for most quakes in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico

The deep injection of wastewater underground is responsible for the dramatic rise in the number of earthquakes in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001, according to a study to be published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA).

The Raton Basin, which stretches from southern Colorado into northern New Mexico, was seismically quiet until shortly after major fluid injection began in 1999. Since 2001, there have been 16 magnitude > 3.8 earthquakes (including M 5.0 and 5.3), compared to only one (M 4.0) the previous 30 years. The increase in earthquakes is limited to the area of industrial activity and within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of wastewater injection wells.

In 1994, energy companies began producing coal-bed methane in Colorado and expanded production to New Mexico in 1999. Along with the production of methane, there is the production of wastewater, which is injected underground in disposal wells and can raise the pore pressure in the surrounding area, inducing earthquakes. Several lines of evidence suggest the earthquakes in the area are directly related to the disposal of wastewater, a by-product of extracting methane, and not to hydraulic fracturing occurring in the area.

Beginning in 2001, the production of methane expanded, with the number of high-volume wastewater disposal wells increasing (21 presently in Colorado and 7 in New Mexico) along with the injection rate. Since mid-2000, the total injection rate across the basin has ranged from 1.5 to 3.6 million barrels per month.

The authors, all scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, detail several lines of evidence directly linking the injection wells to the seismicity. The timing and location of seismicity correspond to the documented pattern of injected wastewater. Detailed investigations of two seismic sequences (2001 and 2011) places them in proximity to high-volume, high-injection-rate wells, and both sequences occurred after a nearby increase in the rate of injection. A comparison between seismicity and wastewater injection in Colorado and New Mexico reveals similar patterns, suggesting seismicity is initiated shortly after an increase in injection rates.

Studies show movements of continents speeding up after slow ‘middle age’

Two studies show that the movement rate of plates carrying the Earth’s crust may not be constant over time. This could provide a new explanation for the patterns observed in the speed of evolution and has implications for the interpretation of climate models. The work is presented today at Goldschmidt 2014, the premier geochemistry conference taking place in Sacramento, California, USA.

The Earth’s continental crust can be thought of as an archive of Earth’s history, containing information on rock formation, the atmosphere and the fossil record. However, it is not clear when and how regularly crust formed since the beginning of Earth history, 4.5 billion years ago.

Researchers led by Professor Peter Cawood, from the University of St. Andrews, UK, examined several measures of continental movement and geologic processes from a number of previous studies. They found that, from 1.7 to 0.75 billion years ago (termed Earth’s middle age), Earth appears to have been very stable in terms of its environment, with little in the way of crust building activity, no major fluctuations in atmospheric composition and few major developments seen in the fossil record. This contrasts markedly with the time periods either side of this, which contained major ice ages and changes in oxygen levels. Earth’s middle age also coincides with the formation of a supercontinent called Rodinia, which appears to have been stable throughout this time.

Professor Cawood suggests this stability may have been due to the gradual cooling of the earth’s crust over time. “Before 1.7 billion years ago, the Earth’s crust would have been substantially hotter, meaning that continental plate movement may have been governed by different rules to those that operate today,” said Professor Cawood. “0.75 billion years ago, the crust reached a point where it had cooled sufficiently to allow modern day plate tectonics to start working, in particular allowing subduction zones to form (where one plate of the crust moves under another). This increase in activity could have kick-started a myriad of changes including the break-up of Rodinia and changes to levels of key elements in the atmosphere and seas, which in turn may have induced evolutionary changes in the life forms present.”

This view is backed up by work from Professor Kent Condie from New Mexico Tech, USA, which suggests the movement rate of the Earth’s crust is not constant but may be speeding up over time. Professor Condie examined how supercontinents assemble and break up. “Our results challenge the view that the rate of plate movement is stable over time,” said Professor Condie. “The interpretation of data from many other disciplines such as stable isotope geochemistry, palaeontology and paleoclimatology in part rely on the assumption that the movement rate of the Earth’s crust is constant.”

Results from these fields may now need to be re-examined in light of Condie’s findings. “We now urgently need to collect further data on critical time periods to understand more about the constraints on plate speeds and the frequency of collision between continental blocks,” concluded Professor Condie.

New evidence for oceans of water deep in the Earth

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico report evidence for potentially oceans worth of water deep beneath the United States. Though not in the familiar liquid form — the ingredients for water are bound up in rock deep in the Earth’s mantle — the discovery may represent the planet’s largest water reservoir.

The presence of liquid water on the surface is what makes our “blue planet” habitable, and scientists have long been trying to figure out just how much water may be cycling between Earth’s surface and interior reservoirs through plate tectonics.

Northwestern geophysicist Steve Jacobsen and University of New Mexico seismologist Brandon Schmandt have found deep pockets of magma located about 400 miles beneath North America, a likely signature of the presence of water at these depths. The discovery suggests water from the Earth’s surface can be driven to such great depths by plate tectonics, eventually causing partial melting of the rocks found deep in the mantle.

The findings, to be published June 13 in the journal Science, will aid scientists in understanding how the Earth formed, what its current composition and inner workings are and how much water is trapped in mantle rock.

“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” said Jacobsen, a co-author of the paper. “I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

Scientists have long speculated that water is trapped in a rocky layer of the Earth’s mantle located between the lower mantle and upper mantle, at depths between 250 miles and 410 miles. Jacobsen and Schmandt are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in this area of the mantle, known as the “transition zone,” on a regional scale. The region extends across most of the interior of the United States.

Schmandt, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of New Mexico, uses seismic waves from earthquakes to investigate the structure of the deep crust and mantle. Jacobsen, an associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, uses observations in the laboratory to make predictions about geophysical processes occurring far beyond our direct observation.

The study combined Jacobsen’s lab experiments in which he studies mantle rock under the simulated high pressures of 400 miles below the Earth’s surface with Schmandt’s observations using vast amounts of seismic data from the USArray, a dense network of more than 2,000 seismometers across the United States.

Jacobsen’s and Schmandt’s findings converged to produce evidence that melting may occur about 400 miles deep in the Earth. H2O stored in mantle rocks, such as those containing the mineral ringwoodite, likely is the key to the process, the researchers said.

“Melting of rock at this depth is remarkable because most melting in the mantle occurs much shallower, in the upper 50 miles,” said Schmandt, a co-author of the paper. “If there is a substantial amount of H2O in the transition zone, then some melting should take place in areas where there is flow into the lower mantle, and that is consistent with what we found.”

If just one percent of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone is H2O, that would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, the researchers said.

This water is not in a form familiar to us — it is not liquid, ice or vapor. This fourth form is water trapped inside the molecular structure of the minerals in the mantle rock. The weight of 250 miles of solid rock creates such high pressure, along with temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that a water molecule splits to form a hydroxyl radical (OH), which can be bound into a mineral’s crystal structure.

Schmandt and Jacobsen’s findings build on a discovery reported in March in the journal Nature in which scientists discovered a piece of the mineral ringwoodite inside a diamond brought up from a depth of 400 miles by a volcano in Brazil. That tiny piece of ringwoodite — the only sample in existence from within the Earth — contained a surprising amount of water bound in solid form in the mineral.

“Whether or not this unique sample is representative of the Earth’s interior composition is not known, however,” Jacobsen said. “Now we have found evidence for extensive melting beneath North America at the same depths corresponding to the dehydration of ringwoodite, which is exactly what has been happening in my experiments.”

For years, Jacobsen has been synthesizing ringwoodite, colored sapphire-like blue, in his Northwestern lab by reacting the green mineral olivine with water at high-pressure conditions. (The Earth’s upper mantle is rich in olivine.) He found that more than one percent of the weight of the ringwoodite’s crystal structure can consist of water — roughly the same amount of water as was found in the sample reported in the Nature paper.

“The ringwoodite is like a sponge, soaking up water,” Jacobsen said. “There is something very special about the crystal structure of ringwoodite that allows it to attract hydrogen and trap water. This mineral can contain a lot of water under conditions of the deep mantle.”

For the study reported in Science, Jacobsen subjected his synthesized ringwoodite to conditions around 400 miles below the Earth’s surface and found it forms small amounts of partial melt when pushed to these conditions. He detected the melt in experiments conducted at the Advanced Photon Source of Argonne National Laboratory and at the National Synchrotron Light Source of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Jacobsen uses small gem diamonds as hard anvils to compress minerals to deep-Earth conditions. “Because the diamond windows are transparent, we can look into the high-pressure device and watch reactions occurring at conditions of the deep mantle,” he said. “We used intense beams of X-rays, electrons and infrared light to study the chemical reactions taking place in the diamond cell.”

Jacobsen’s findings produced the same evidence of partial melt, or magma, that Schmandt detected beneath North America using seismic waves. Because the deep mantle is beyond the direct observation of scientists, they use seismic waves — sound waves at different speeds — to image the interior of the Earth.

“Seismic data from the USArray are giving us a clearer picture than ever before of the Earth’s internal structure beneath North America,” Schmandt said. “The melting we see appears to be driven by subduction — the downwelling of mantle material from the surface.”

The melting the researchers have detected is called dehydration melting. Rocks in the transition zone can hold a lot of H2O, but rocks in the top of the lower mantle can hold almost none. The water contained within ringwoodite in the transition zone is forced out when it goes deeper (into the lower mantle) and forms a higher-pressure mineral called silicate perovskite, which cannot absorb the water. This causes the rock at the boundary between the transition zone and lower mantle to partially melt.

“When a rock with a lot of H2O moves from the transition zone to the lower mantle it needs to get rid of the H2O somehow, so it melts a little bit,” Schmandt said. “This is called dehydration melting.”

“Once the water is released, much of it may become trapped there in the transition zone,” Jacobsen added.

Just a little bit of melt, about one percent, is detectible with the new array of seismometers aimed at this region of the mantle because the melt slows the speed of seismic waves, Schmandt said.

Scientists use ‘virtual earthquakes’ to forecast Los Angeles quake risk

Stanford scientists are using weak vibrations generated by the Earth’s oceans to produce “virtual earthquakes” that can be used to predict the ground movement and shaking hazard to buildings from real quakes.

The new technique, detailed in the Jan. 24 issue of the journal Science, was used to confirm a prediction that Los Angeles will experience stronger-than-expected ground movement if a major quake occurs south of the city.

“We used our virtual earthquake approach to reconstruct large earthquakes on the southern San Andreas Fault and studied the responses of the urban environment of Los Angeles to such earthquakes,” said lead author Marine Denolle, who recently received her PhD in geophysics from Stanford and is now at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

The new technique capitalizes on the fact that earthquakes aren’t the only sources of seismic waves. “If you put a seismometer in the ground and there’s no earthquake, what do you record? It turns out that you record something,” said study leader Greg Beroza, a geophysics professor at Stanford.

What the instruments will pick up is a weak, continuous signal known as the ambient seismic field. This omnipresent field is generated by ocean waves interacting with the solid Earth. When the waves collide with each other, they generate a pressure pulse that travels through the ocean to the sea floor and into the Earth’s crust. “These waves are billions of times weaker than the seismic waves generated by earthquakes,” Beroza said.

Scientists have known about the ambient seismic field for about 100 years, but it was largely considered a nuisance because it interferes with their ability to study earthquakes. The tenuous seismic waves that make up this field propagate every which way through the crust. But in the past decade, seismologists developed signal-processing techniques that allow them to isolate certain waves; in particular, those traveling through one seismometer and then another one downstream.

Denolle built upon these techniques and devised a way to make these ambient seismic waves function as proxies for seismic waves generated by real earthquakes. By studying how the ambient waves moved underground, the researchers were able to predict the actions of much stronger waves from powerful earthquakes.

She began by installing several seismometers along the San Andreas Fault to specifically measure ambient seismic waves.

Employing data from the seismometers, the group then used mathematical techniques they developed to make the waves appear as if they originated deep within the Earth. This was done to correct for the fact that the seismometers Denolle installed were located at the Earth’s surface, whereas real earthquakes occur at depth.

In the study, the team used their virtual earthquake approach to confirm the accuracy of a prediction, made in 2006 by supercomputer simulations, that if the southern San Andreas Fault section of California were to rupture and spawn an earthquake, some of the seismic waves traveling northward would be funneled toward Los Angeles along a 60-mile-long (100-kilometer-long) natural conduit that connects the city with the San Bernardino Valley. This passageway is composed mostly of sediments, and acts to amplify and direct waves toward the Los Angeles region.

Until now, there was no way to test whether this funneling action, known as the waveguide-to-basin effect, actually takes place because a major quake has not occurred along that particular section of the San Andreas Fault in more than 150 years.

The virtual earthquake approach also predicts that seismic waves will become further amplified when they reach Los Angeles because the city sits atop a large sedimentary basin. To understand why this occurs, study coauthor Eric Dunham, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford, said to imagine taking a block of plastic foam, cutting out a bowl-shaped hole in the middle, and filling the cavity with gelatin. In this analogy, the plastic foam is a stand-in for rocks, while the gelatin is like sediments, or dirt. “The gelatin is floppier and a lot more compliant. If you shake the whole thing, you’re going to get some motion in the Styrofoam, but most of what you’re going to see is the basin oscillating,” Dunham said.

As a result, the scientists say, Los Angeles could be at risk for stronger, and more variable, ground motion if a large earthquake – magnitude 7.0 or greater – were to occur along the southern San Andreas Fault, near the Salton Sea.

“The seismic waves are essentially guided into the sedimentary basin that underlies Los Angeles,” Beroza said. “Once there, the waves reverberate and are amplified, causing stronger shaking than would otherwise occur.”

Beroza’s group is planning to test the virtual earthquake approach in other cities around the world that are built atop sedimentary basins, such as Tokyo, Mexico City, Seattle and parts of the San Francisco Bay area. “All of these cities are earthquake threatened, and all of them have an extra threat because of the basin amplification effect,” Beroza said.

Because the technique is relatively inexpensive, it could also be useful for forecasting ground motion in developing countries. “You don’t need large supercomputers to run the simulations,” Denolle said.

In addition to studying earthquakes that have yet to occur, the technique could also be used as a kind of “seismological time machine” to recreate the seismic signatures of temblors that shook the Earth long ago, according to Beroza.

“For an earthquake that occurred 200 years ago, if you know where the fault was, you could deploy instruments, go through this procedure, and generate seismograms for earthquakes that occurred before seismographs were invented,” he said.

East Antarctica is sliding sideways

It’s official: East Antarctica is pushing West Antarctica around.

Now that West Antarctica is losing weight–that is, billions of tons of ice per year–its softer mantle rock is being nudged westward by the harder mantle beneath East Antarctica.

The discovery comes from researchers led by The Ohio State University, who have recorded GPS measurements that show West Antarctic bedrock is being pushed sideways at rates up to about twelve millimeters–about half an inch–per year. This movement is important for understanding current ice loss on the continent, and predicting future ice loss.

They reported the results on Thursday, Dec. 12 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Half an inch doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite dramatic compared to other areas of the planet, explained Terry Wilson, professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. Wilson leads POLENET, an international collaboration that has planted GPS and seismic sensors all over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

She and her team weren’t surprised to detect the horizontal motion. After all, they’ve been using GPS to observe vertical motion on the continent since the 1990’s.

They were surprised, she said, to find the bedrock moving towards regions of greatest ice loss.

“From computer models, we knew that the bedrock should rebound as the weight of ice on top of it goes away,” Wilson said. “But the rock should spread out from the site where the ice used to be. Instead, we see movement toward places where there was the most ice loss.”

The seismic sensors explained why. By timing how fast seismic waves pass through the earth under Antarctica, the researchers were able to determine that the mantle regions beneath east and west are very different. West Antarctica contains warmer, softer rock, and East Antarctica has colder, harder rock.

Stephanie Konfal, a research associate with POLENET, pointed out that where the transition is most pronounced, the sideways movement runs perpendicular to the boundary between the two types of mantle.

She likened the mantle interface to a pot of honey.

“If you imagine that you have warm spots and cold spots in the honey, so that some of it is soft and some is hard,” Konfal said, “and if you press down on the surface of the honey with a spoon, the honey will move away from the spoon, but the movement won’t be uniform. The hard spots will push into the soft spots. And when you take the spoon away, the soft honey won’t uniformly flow back up to fill the void, because the hard honey is still pushing on it.”

Or, put another way, ice compressed West Antarctica’s soft mantle. Some ice has melted away, but the soft mantle isn’t filling back in uniformly, because East Antarctica’s harder mantle is pushing it sideways. The crust is just along for the ride.

This finding is significant, Konfal said, because we use these crustal motions to understand ice loss.

“We’re witnessing expected movements being reversed, so we know we really need computer models that can take lateral changes in mantle properties into account.”

Wilson said that such extreme differences in mantle properties are not seen elsewhere on the planet where glacial rebound is occurring.

“We figured Antarctica would be different,” she said. “We just didn’t know how different.”

Ohio State’s POLENET academic partners in the United States are Pennsylvania State University, Washington University, New Mexico Tech, Central Washington University, the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and the University of Memphis. A host of international partners are part of the effort as well. The project is supported by the UNAVCO and IRIS-PASSCAL geodetic and seismic facilities.

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.

2006 Plate Motion Reversal Unlikely To Have Eased Seismic Strain, Earthquake Anticipation Near Acapulco





A reversal of tectonic plate motion near Acapulco, Mexico, in 2006 (colored arrows) as measured by GPS satellites did little to ease seismic strain in the region and the potential for a large earthquake that could impact Mexico City 175 miles away, according to a new study led by CU-Boulder.
A reversal of tectonic plate motion near Acapulco, Mexico, in 2006 (colored arrows) as measured by GPS satellites did little to ease seismic strain in the region and the potential for a large earthquake that could impact Mexico City 175 miles away, according to a new study led by CU-Boulder.

A reversal of tectonic plate motion between Acapulco and Mexico City in the last half of 2006 probably didn’t ease seismic strain in the region or the specter of a major earthquake anticipated there in the coming decades, says a University of Colorado at Boulder professor.



Instead of creeping toward Mexico City at about one inch per year – the expected speed from plate tectonic theory – the region near Acapulco moved in the opposite direction for six months and sped up by four times, said CU-Boulder aerospace engineering Professor Kristine Larson. The changes in motion were detected by analyzing data from GPS satellite receivers set up in Guerrero, Mexico, that were installed by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) under the direction of UNAM geophysicist Vladimir Kostoglodov and augmented by CU-Boulder.



“The million-dollar question is whether the event makes a major earthquake in the region less likely or more likely,” said Larson, whose research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation. “So far, it does not appear to be reducing the earthquake hazard.”



A paper on the subject by Larson, the University of Tokyo’s Shin’ichi Miyazaki and UNAM’s Kostoglodov and José Antonio Santiago was published Aug. 1 in Geophysical Research Letters.



Scientists use GPS satellite receivers to record laser pulses from spacecraft to measure tiny movements in Earth’s crust.



The question of earthquake hazard is particularly important for Guerrero, since it is located 175 miles southwest of Mexico City, Larson said. “A very large earthquake in Guerrero would produce seismic waves that would travel quickly to the Mexican capital, and since Mexico City is built on water-saturated lakebed deposits that amplify seismic energy, the results would be catastrophic,” she said.


In 1985, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake triggered by the Cocos Plate dipping under the North American Plate off the west coast of southern Mexico struck along the coast north of Guerrero and killed 10,000 people in Mexico City, injured about 50,000 and caused an estimated $5 billion in property damage.



Since the last major earthquake in northwest Guerrero was a 7.6 magnitude event in 1911, many scientists think the area is ripe for a much larger earthquake, likely in the range of 8.1 to 8.4, Larson said. Geophysicists refer to the impending earthquake as the “Guerrero Gap,” she said.



“Before GPS we thought the ground moved at a constant speed between earthquakes,” Larson said. “The recognition of these transient events where the plate reverses direction is arguably the most important geophysical discovery that has stemmed from the introduction of GPS measurements.”



The Guerrero slip events recorded by Larson and Kostoglodov’s research team in 2006 are the largest ever reported in the world.



Studies of the Guerrero Gap are helping scientists better understand other subduction zones around the world, including the Cascadia region off the coast of Washington and Oregon, Larson said. Smaller but much faster backwards slip events have occurred there, as have very large earthquakes in previous centuries.