Volcano hazards and the role of westerly wind bursts in El Niño

On June 27, lava from Kīlauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawai'i, began flowing to the northeast, threatening the residents in a community in the District of Puna. -  USGS
On June 27, lava from Kīlauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawai’i, began flowing to the northeast, threatening the residents in a community in the District of Puna. – USGS

On 27 June, lava from Kīlauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawai’i, began flowing to the northeast, threatening the residents in Pāhoa, a community in the District of Puna, as well as the only highway accessible to this area. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the Hawai’i County Civil Defense have been monitoring the volcano’s lava flow and communicating with affected residents through public meetings since 24 August. Eos recently spoke with Michael Poland, a geophysicist at HVO and a member of the Eos Editorial Advisory Board, to discuss how he and his colleagues communicated this threat to the public.

Drilling a Small Basaltic Volcano to Reveal Potential Hazards


Drilling into the Rangitoto Island Volcano in the Auckland Volcanic Field in New Zealand offers insight into a small monogenetic volcano, and may improve understanding of future hazards.

From AGU’s journals: El Niño fades without westerly wind bursts

The warm and wet winter of 1997 brought California floods, Florida tornadoes, and an ice storm in the American northeast, prompting climatologists to dub it the El Niño of the century. Earlier this year, climate scientists thought the coming winter might bring similar extremes, as equatorial Pacific Ocean conditions resembled those seen in early 1997. But the signals weakened by summer, and the El Niño predictions were downgraded. Menkes et al. used simulations to examine the differences between the two years.

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation is defined by abnormally warm sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean and weaker than usual trade winds. In a typical year, southeast trade winds push surface water toward the western Pacific “warm pool”–a region essential to Earth’s climate. The trade winds dramatically weaken or even reverse in El Niño years, and the warm pool extends its reach east.

Scientists have struggled to predict El Niño due to irregularities in the shape, amplitude, and timing of the surges of warm water. Previous studies suggested that short-lived westerly wind pulses (i.e. one to two weeks long) could contribute to this irregularity by triggering and sustaining El Niño events.

To understand the vanishing 2014 El Niño, the authors used computer simulations and examined the wind’s role. The researchers find pronounced differences between 1997 and 2014. Both years saw strong westerly wind events between January and March, but those disappeared this year as spring approached. In contrast, the westerly winds persisted through summer in 1997.

In the past, it was thought that westerly wind pulses were three times as likely to form if the warm pool extended east of the dateline. That did not occur this year. The team says their analysis shows that El Niño’s strength might depend on these short-lived and possibly unpredictable pulses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offshore islands amplify, rather than dissipate, a tsunami’s power

This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami's height. -  Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC
This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami’s height. – Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC

A long-held belief that offshore islands protect the mainland from tsunamis turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth, according to a new study.

Common wisdom — from Southern California to the South Pacific — for coastal residents and scientists alike has long been that offshore islands would create a buffer that blocked the power of a tsunami. In fact, computer modeling of tsunamis striking a wide variety of different offshore island geometries yielded no situation in which the mainland behind them fared better.

Instead, islands focused the energy of the tsunami, increasing flooding on the mainland by up to 70 percent.

“This is where many fishing villages are located, behind offshore islands, in the belief that they will be protected from wind waves. Even Southern California residents believe that the Channel Islands and Catalina will protect them,” said Costas Synolakis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, a member of the multinational team that conducted the research.

The research was inspired by a field survey of the impact of the 2010 tsunami on the Mentawai Islands off of Sumatra. The survey data showed that villages located in the shadow of small offshore islets suffered some of the strongest tsunami impacts, worse than villages located along open coasts.

Subsequent computer modeling by Jose Borrero, adjunct assistant research professor at the USC Viterbi Tsunami Research Center, showed that the offshore islands had actually contributed to — not diminished — the tsunami’s impact.

Synolakis then teamed up with researchers Emile Contal and Nicolas Vayatis of Ecoles Normales de Cachan in Paris; and Themistoklis S. Stefanakis and Frederic Dias, who both have joint appointments at Ecoles Normales de Cachan and University College Dublin to determine whether that was a one-of-a-kind situation, or the norm.

Their study, of which Dias was the corresponding author, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A on Nov. 5.

The team designed a computer model that took into consideration various island slopes, beach slopes, water depths, distance between the island and the beach, and wavelength of the incoming tsunami.

“Even a casual analysis of these factors would have required hundreds of thousands of computations, each of which could take up to half a day,” Synolakis said. “So instead, we used machine learning.”

Machine learning is a mathematical process that makes it easier to identify the maximum values of interdependent processes with multiple parameters by allowing the computer to “learn” from previous results.

The computer starts to understand how various tweaks to the parameters affect the overall outcome and finds the best answer quicker. As such, results that traditionally could have taken hundreds of thousands of models to uncover were found with 200 models.

“This work is applicable to some of our tsunami study sites in New Zealand,” said Borrero, who is producing tsunami hazard maps for regions of the New Zealand coast. “The northeast coast of New Zealand has many small islands offshore, similar to those in Indonesia, and our modeling suggests that this results in areas of enhanced tsunami heights.”

“Substantial public education efforts are needed to help better explain to coastal residents tsunami hazards, and whenever they need to be extra cautious and responsive with evacuations during actual emergencies,” Synolakis said.

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The research was funded by EDSP of ENS-Cachan; the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Dublin; the ERC; SFI; University College Dublin; and the EU FP7 program ASTARTE. The study can be found online at http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/470/2172/20140575.

Extinct undersea volcanoes squashed under Earth’s crust cause tsunami earthquakes, according to new

New research has revealed the causes and warning signs of rare tsunami earthquakes, which may lead to improved detection measures.

Tsunami earthquakes happen at relatively shallow depths in the ocean and are small in terms of their magnitude. However, they create very large tsunamis, with some earthquakes that only measure 5.6 on the Richter scale generating waves that reach up to ten metres when they hit the shore.

A global network of seismometers enables researchers to detect even the smallest earthquakes. However, the challenge has been to determine which small magnitude events are likely to cause large tsunamis.

In 1992, a magnitude 7.2 tsunami earthquake occurred off the coast of Nicaragua in Central America causing the deaths of 170 people. Six hundred and thirty seven people died and 164 people were reported missing following a tsunami earthquake off the coast of Java, Indonesia, in 2006, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale.

The new study, published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, reveals that tsunami earthquakes may be caused by extinct undersea volcanoes causing a “sticking point” between two sections of the Earth’s crust called tectonic plates, where one plate slides under another.

The researchers from Imperial College London and GNS Science in New Zealand used geophysical data collected for oil and gas exploration and historical accounts from eye witnesses relating to two tsunami earthquakes, which happened off the coast of New Zealand’s north island in 1947. Tsunami earthquakes were only identified by geologists around 35 years ago, so detailed studies of these events are rare.

The team located two extinct volcanoes off the coast of Poverty Bay and Tolaga Bay that have been squashed and sunk beneath the crust off the coast of New Zealand, in a process called subduction.

The researchers suggest that the volcanoes provided a “sticking point” between a part of the Earth’s crust called the Pacific plate, which was trying to slide underneath the New Zealand plate. This caused a build-up of energy, which was released in 1947, causing the plates to “unstick” and the Pacific plate to move and the volcanoes to become subsumed under New Zealand. This release of the energy from both plates was unusually slow and close to the seabed, causing large movements of the sea floor, which led to the formation of very large tsunami waves.

All these factors combined, say the researchers, are factors that contribute to tsunami earthquakes. The researchers say that the 1947 New Zealand tsunami earthquakes provide valuable insights into what geological factors cause these events. They believe the information they’ve gathered on these events could be used to locate similar zones around the world that could be at risk from tsunami earthquakes. Eyewitnesses from these tsunami earthquakes also describe the type of ground movement that occurred and this provides valuable clues about possible early warning signals for communities.

Dr Rebecca Bell, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says: “Tsunami earthquakes don’t create massive tremors like more conventional earthquakes such as the one that hit Japan in 2011, so residents and authorities in the past haven’t had the same warning signals to evacuate. These types of earthquakes were only identified a few decades ago, so little information has been collected on them. Thanks to oil exploration data and eyewitness accounts from two tsunami earthquakes that happened in New Zealand more than 70 years ago, we are beginning to understand for first time the factors that cause these events. This could ultimately save lives.”

By studying the data and reports, the researchers have built up a picture of what happened in New Zealand in 1947 when the tsunami earthquakes hit. In the March earthquake, eyewitnesses around Poverty Bay on the east coast of the country, close to the town of Gisborne, said that they didn’t feel violent tremors, which are characteristic of typical earthquakes. Instead, they felt the ground rolling, which lasted for minutes, and brought on a sense of sea sickness. Approximately 30 minutes later the bay was inundated by a ten metre high tsunami that was generated by a 5.9 magnitude offshore earthquake. In May, an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale happened off the coast of Tolaga Bay, causing an approximate six metre high tsunami to hit the coast. No lives were lost in the New Zealand earthquakes as the areas were sparsely populated in 1947. However, more recent tsunami earthquakes elsewhere have devastated coastal communities.

The researchers are already working with colleagues in New Zealand to develop a better warning system for residents. In particular, new signage is being installed along coastal regions to alert people to the early warning signs that indicate a possible tsunami earthquake. In the future, the team hope to conduct new cutting-edge geophysical surveys over the sites of other sinking volcanoes to better understand their characteristics and the role they play in generating this unusual type of earthquake.

Ground-improvement methods might protect against earthquakes

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering are developing ground-improvement methods to help increase the resilience of homes and low-rise structures built on top of soils prone to liquefaction during strong earthquakes.

Findings will help improve the safety of structures in Christchurch and the Canterbury region in New Zealand, which were devastated in 2010 and 2011 by a series of powerful earthquakes. Parts of Christchurch were severely affected by liquefaction, in which water-saturated soil temporarily becomes liquid-like and often flows to the surface creating sand boils.

“The 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes in New Zealand have caused significant damage to many residential houses due to varying degrees of soil liquefaction over a wide extent of urban areas unseen in past destructive earthquakes,” said Kenneth Stokoe, a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “One critical problem facing the rebuilding effort is that the land remains at risk of liquefaction in future earthquakes. Therefore, effective engineering solutions must be developed to increase the resilience of homes and low-rise structures.”

Researchers have conducted a series of field trials to test shallow-ground-improvement methods.

“The purpose of the field trials was to determine if and which improvement methods achieve the objectives of inhibiting liquefaction triggering in the improved ground and are cost-effective measures,” said Stokoe, working with Brady Cox, an assistant professor of civil engineering. “This knowledge is needed to develop foundation design solutions.”

Findings were detailed in a research paper presented in December at the New Zealand – Japan Workshop on Soil Liquefaction during Recent large-Scale Earthquakes. The paper was authored by Stokoe, graduate students Julia Roberts and Sungmoon Hwang; Cox and operations manager Farn-Yuh Menq from the University of Texas at Austin; and Sjoerd Van Ballegooy from Tonkin & Taylor Ltd, an international environmental and engineering consulting firm in Auckland, New Zealand.

The researchers collected data from test sections of improved and unimproved soils that were subjected to earthquake stresses using a large mobile shaker, called T-Rex, and with explosive charges planted underground. The test sections were equipped with sensors to monitor key factors including ground motion and water pressure generated in soil pores during the induced shaking, providing preliminary data to determine the most effective ground-improvement method.

Four ground-improvement methods were initially selected for the testing: rapid impact compaction (RIC); rammed aggregate piers (RAP), which consist of gravel columns; low-mobility grouting (LMG); and construction of a single row of horizontal beams (SRB) or a double row of horizontal beams (DRB) beneath existing residential structures via soil-cement mixing.
“The results are being analyzed, but good and poor performance can already be differentiated,” Stokoe said. “The ground-improvement methods that inhibited liquefaction triggering the most were RIC, RAP, and DRB. However, additional analyses are still underway.”

The test site is located along the Avon River in the Christchurch suburb of Bexley. The work is part of a larger testing program that began in early 2013 with a preliminary evaluation by Brady Cox of seven potential test sites along the Avon River in the Christchurch area.

Soil production breaks geologic speed record

This is a photo of the researcher hiking down the ridge at Rapid Creek to collect soil samples.  The dense bush and heavy 10 kilogram soil samples slowed uphill progress to less than 200 meters per hour. -  Andre Eger
This is a photo of the researcher hiking down the ridge at Rapid Creek to collect soil samples. The dense bush and heavy 10 kilogram soil samples slowed uphill progress to less than 200 meters per hour. – Andre Eger

Geologic time is shorthand for slow-paced. But new measurements from steep mountaintops in New Zealand show that rock can transform into soil more than twice as fast as previously believed possible.

The findings were published Jan. 16 in the early online edition of Science.

“Some previous work had argued that there were limits to soil production,” said first author Isaac Larsen, who did the work as part of his doctoral research in Earth sciences at the University of Washington. “But no one had made the measurements.”

The finding is more than just a new speed record. Rapidly eroding mountain ranges account for at least half of the total amount of the planet’s weathering and sediment production, although they occupy just a few percent of the Earth’s surface, researchers said.

So the record-breaking production at the mountaintops has implications for the entire carbon cycle by which the Earth’s crust pushes up to form mountains, crumbles, washes with rivers and rainwater to the sea, and eventually settles to the bottom to form new rock.

“This work takes the trend between soil production rates and chemical weathering rates and extends it to much higher values than had ever been previously observed,” said Larsen, now a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The study site in New Zealand’s Southern Alps is “an extremely rugged mountain range,” Larsen said, with rainfall of 10 meters (33 feet) per year and slopes of about 35 degrees.

To collect samples Larsen and co-author André Eger, then a graduate student at Lincoln University in New Zealand, were dropped from a helicopter onto remote mountaintops above the tree line. They would hike down to an appropriate test site and collect 20 pounds of dirt apiece, and then trek the samples back up to their base camp. The pair stayed at each of the mountaintop sites for about three days.

“I’ve worked in a lot of places,” Larsen said. “This was the most challenging fieldwork I’ve done.”

Researchers then brought soil samples back to the UW and measured the amount of Beryllium-10, an isotope that forms only at the Earth’s surface by exposure to cosmic rays. Those measurements showed soil production rates on the ridge tops ranging from 0.1 to 2.5 millimeters (1/10 of an inch) per year, and decrease exponentially with increasing soil thickness.

The peak rate is more than twice the proposed speed limit for soil production, in which geologists wondered if in places where soil is lost very quickly, the soil production just can’t keep up. In earlier work Larsen had noticed vegetation on very steep slopes and so he proposed this project to measure soil production rates at some of the steepest, wettest locations on the planet.

The new results show that soil production and weathering rates continue to increase as the landscape gets steeper and erodes faster, and suggest that other very steep locations such as the Himalayas and the mountains in Taiwan may also have very fast soil formation.

“A couple millimeters a year sounds pretty slow to anybody but a geologist,” said co-author David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “Isaac measured two millimeters of soil production a year, so it would take just a dozen years to make an inch of soil. That’s shockingly fast for a geologist, because the conventional wisdom is it takes centuries.”

The researchers believe plant roots may be responsible here. The mountain landscape was covered with low, dense vegetation. The roots of those plants reach into cracks in the rocks, helping break them apart and expose them to rainwater and chemical weathering.

“This opens up new questions about how soil production might happen in other locations, climates and environments,” Larsen said.

The complicated birth of a volcano

Snow storms, ice and glaciers – these are the usual images we associate with the Antarctic. But at the same time it is also a region of fire: the Antarctic continent and surrounding waters are dotted with volcanoes – some of them still active and others extinct for quite some time. The Marie Byrd Seamounts in the Amundsen Sea are in the latter group. Their summit plateaus are today at depths of 2400-1600 meters. Because they are very difficult to reach with conventional research vessels, they have hardly been explored, even though the Marie Byrd Seamounts are fascinating formations. They do not fit any of the usual models for the formation of volcanoes. Now geologists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were able to find a possible explanation for the existence of these seamounts on the basis of rare specimens. The study is published in the international journal “Gondwana Research“.

Classic volcanologists differentiate between two types of fire mountains. One type is generated where tectonic plates meet, so the earth’s crust is already cracked to begin with. The other type is formed within the earth’s plates. “The latter are called intraplate volcanoes. They are often found above a so-called mantle plume. Hot material rises from the deep mantle, collects under the earth’s crust, makes its way to the surface and forms a volcano,” said Dr. Reinhard Werner, one of the authors of the current paper. One example are the Hawaiian Islands. But neither of the above models fits the Marie Byrd Seamounts. “There are no plate boundary in the vicinity and no plume underground,” says graduate geologist Andrea Kipf from GEOMAR, first author of the study.

To clarify the origin of the Marie Byrd Seamounts, in 2006 the Kiel scientists participated in an expedition of the research vessel POLARSTEN in the Amundsen Sea. They salvaged rock samples from the seamounts and subjected these to thorough geological, volcanological and geochemical investigations after returning to the home labs. “Interestingly enough, we found chemical signatures that are typical of plume volcanoes. And they are very similar to volcanoes in New Zealand and the Antarctic continent,” says geochemist Dr. Folkmar Hauff, second author of the paper.

Based on this finding, the researchers sought an explanation. They found it in the history of tectonic plates in the southern hemisphere. Around 100 million years ago, remains of the former supercontinent Gondwana were located in the area of present Antarctica. A mantle plume melted through this continental plate and cracked it open. Two new continents were born: the Antarctic and “Zealandia”, with the islands of New Zealand still in evidence today. When the young continents drifted in different directions away from the mantle plume, large quantities of hot plume material were attached to their undersides. These formed reservoirs for future volcanic eruptions on the two continents. “This process explains why we find signatures of plume material at volcanoes that are not on top of plumes,” says Dr. Hauff.

But that still does not explain the Marie Byrd Seamounts because they are not located on the Antarctic continent, but on the adjacent oceanic crust instead. “Continental tectonic plates are thicker than the oceanic ones. This ensures, among other things, differences in temperature in the underground,” says volcanologist Dr. Werner. And just as air masses of different temperatures create winds, the temperature differences under the earth’s crust generate flows and movements as well. Thus the plume material, that once lay beneath the continent, was able to shift under the oceanic plate. With disruptions due to other tectonic processes, there were cracks and crevices which allowed the hot material to rise, turn into magma and then- about 60 million years ago – allowed the Marie Byrd Seamounts to grow. “This created islands are comparable to the Canary Islands today,” explains Andrea Kipf. “Some day the volcanoes became extinct again, wind and weather eroded the cone down to sea level, and other geological processes further eroded the seamounts. Finally, the summit plateaus arrived at the level that we know today,” the PhD student describes the last step of the development.

Based on the previously little investigated Marie Byrd Seamounts, the researchers were able to show another example of how diverse and complex the processes are, that can cause volcanism. “We are still far from understanding all of these processes. But with the current study, we can contribute a small piece to the overall picture,” says Dr. Werner.

New explanation for slow earthquakes on San Andreas

New Zealand’s geologic hazards agency reported this week an ongoing, “silent” earthquake that began in January is still going strong. Though it is releasing the energy equivalent of a 7.0 earthquake, New Zealanders can’t feel it because its energy is being released over a long period of time, therefore slow, rather than a few short seconds.

These so-called “slow slip events” are common at subduction zone faults – where an oceanic plate meets a continental plate and dives beneath it. They also occur on continents along strike-slip faults like California’s San Andreas, where two plates move horizontally in opposite directions. Occurring close to the surface, in the upper 3-5 kilometers (km) of the fault, this slow, silent movement is referred to as “creep events.”

In a study published this week in Nature Geoscience, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), McGill University, and GNS Science New Zealand provide a new model for understanding the geological source of silent earthquakes, or “creep events” along California’s San Andreas fault. The new study shows creep events originate closer to the surface, a much shallower source along the fault.

“The observation that faults creep in different ways at different places and times in the earthquake cycle has been around for 40 years without a mechanical model that can explain this variability,” says WHOI geologist and co-author Jeff McGuire. “Creep is a basic feature of how faults work that we now understand better.”

Fault creep occurs in shallow portions of the fault and is not considered a seismic event. There are two types of creep. In one form, creep occurs as a continuous stable sliding of unlocked portions of the fault, and can account for approximately 25 millimeters of motion along the fault per year. The other type is called a “creep event,” sudden slow movement, lasting only a few hours, and accommodating approximately 3 centimeters of slip per event. Creep events are separated by long intervals of slow continuous creep.

“Normal earthquakes happen when the locked portions of the fault rupture under the strain of accumulated stress and the plates move or slip along the fault,” says the study’s lead author, WHOI postdoctoral scholar Matt Wei. “This kind of activity is only a portion of the total fault movement per year. However, a significant fraction of the total slip can be attributed to fault creep.”

Scientists have mapped out the segments of the San Andreas fault that experience these different kinds of creep, and which segments are totally “locked,” experiencing no movement at all until an earthquake rupture. They know the source of earthquakes is a layer of unstable rock at about 5- 15 km depth along the fault. But have only recently begun to understand the source of fault creep.

For nearly two decades, geologists have accepted and relied upon a mechanical model to explain the geologic source of fault creep. This model explains that continuous creep is generated in the upper-most “stable” sediment layer of the fault plane and episodic creep events originate in a “conditionally stable” layer of rock sandwiched between the sediment and the unstable layer of rock (the seismogenic zone, where earthquakes originate) below it.

But when Wei and his colleagues tried to use this mechanical model to reproduce the geodetic data after a 1987 earthquake in southern California’s Superstition Hills fault, they found it is impossible to match the observations.

“Superstition Hills was a very large earthquake. Immediately following the quake, the US Geologic Survey installed creepmeters to measure the post-seismic deformation. The result is a unique data set that shows both afterslip and creep events,” says Wei.

The researchers could only match the real world data set and on-the-ground observations by embedding an additional unstable layer within the top sediment layer of the model. “This layer may result from fine-scale lithological heterogeneities within the stable zone -frictional behavior varies with lithology, generating the instability,” the authors write. “Our model suggests that the displacement of and interval between creep events are dependent on the thickness, stress, and frictional properties of the shallow, unstable layer.”

There are major strike-slip faults like the San Andreas around the world, but the extent of creep events along those faults is something of a mystery. “Part of the reason is that we don’t have creepmeters along these faults, which are often in sparsely populated areas. It takes money and effort, so a lot of these faults are not covered [with instruments]. We can use remote sensing to know if they are creeping, but we don’t know if it’s from continuous creep or creep events,” says Wei.

Simulating faults to better understand how stress, strain, and earthquakes work is inherently difficult because of the depth at which the important processes happen. Recovering drill cores and installing instruments at significant depths within the earth is very expensive and still relatively rare. “Rarely are the friction tests done on real cores,” says Wei. “Most of the friction tests are done on synthetic cores. Scientists will grind rocks into powder to simulate the fault.”Decades of these experiments have provided an empirical framework to understand how stress and slip evolve on faults, but geologists are still a long way from having numerical models tailored to the parameters that hold for particular faults in the earth.

McGuire says the new research is an important step in ground-truthing those lab simulations. “This work has shown that the application of the friction laws derived from the lab can accurately describe some first order variations that we observe with geodesy between different faults in the real world,” he says. “This is an important validation of the scaling up of the lab results to large crustal faults.”

For the scientists, this knowledge is a new beginning for further research into understanding fault motion and the events that trigger them. Creep events are important because they are shallow and release stress, but are still an unknown factor in understanding earthquake behavior. “There’s much we still don’t know. For example, it’s possible that the shallow layer source of creep events could magnify an earthquake as it propagates through these layers,” says Wei.

Additionally, the findings can help understand the slow slip events happening along subduction zones, like the ongoing event in New Zealand. “By validating the friction models with shallow creep events that have very precise data, we can have more confidence in the mechanical implications of the deep subduction zone events,” McGuire says.

Slow earthquakes: It’s all in the rock mechanics

Earthquakes that last minutes rather than seconds are a relatively recent discovery, according to an international team of seismologists. Researchers have been aware of these slow earthquakes, only for the past five to 10 years because of new tools and new observations, but these tools may explain the triggering of some normal earthquakes and could help in earthquake prediction.

“New technology has shown us that faults do not just fail in a sudden earthquake or by stable creep,” said Demian M. Saffer, professor of geoscience, Penn State. “We now know that earthquakes with anomalous low frequencies — slow earthquakes — and slow slip events that take weeks to occur exist.”

These new observations have put a big wrinkle into our thinking about how faults work, according to the researchers who also include Chris Marone, professor of geosciences, Penn State; Matt J. Ikari, recent Ph.D. recipient, and Achim J. Kopf, former Penn State postdoctural fellow, both now at the University of Bremen, Germany. So far, no one has explained the processes that cause slow earthquakes.

The researchers thought that the behavior had to be related to the type of rock in the fault, believing that clay minerals are important in this slip behavior to see how the rocks reacted. Ikari performed laboratory experiments using natural samples from drilling done offshore of Japan in a place where slow earthquakes occur. The samples came from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international collaborative. The researchers reported their results recently in Nature Geoscience.

These samples are made up of ocean sediment that is mostly clay with a little quartz.

“Usually, when you shear clay-rich fault rocks in the laboratory in the way rocks are sheared in a fault, as the speed increases, the rocks become stronger and self arrests the movement,” said Saffer. “Matt noticed another behavior. Initially the rocks reacted as expected, but these clays got weaker as they slid further. They initially became slightly stronger as the slip rate increased, but then, over the long run, they became weaker.

The laboratory experiments that produced the largest effect closely matched the velocity at which slow earthquakes occur in nature. The researchers also found that water content in the clays influenced how the shear occurred.

“From the physics of earthquake nucleation based on the laboratory experiments we would predict the size of the patch of fault that breaks at tens of meters,” said Saffer. “The consistent result for the rates of slip and the velocity of slip in the lab are interesting. Lots of things point in the direction for this to be the solution.”

The researchers worry about slow earthquakes because there is evidence that swarms of low frequency events can trigger large earthquake events. In Japan, a combination of broadband seismometers and global positioning system devices can monitor slow earthquakes.

For the Japanese and others in earthquake prone areas, a few days of foreknowledge of a potential earthquake hazard could be valuable and save lives.

For slow slip events, collecting natural samples for laboratory experiments is more difficult because the faults where these take place are very deep. Only off the north shore of New Zealand is there a fault that can be sampled. Saffer is currently working to arrange a drilling expedition to that fault.

Shaking the Earth: Just add water

Phil Wannamaker, a geophysicist at the University of Utah's Energy and Geoscience Institute, on New Zealand's South Island with the Inland Kaikoura Range in the background. New Zealand sits atop one of the youngest 'subduction zones' on Earth, where the Pacific Plate of Earth's crust is diving beneath New Zealand, which sits on the Australian Plate. Wannamaker led a study that showed how and where water is released in a young subduction zone so that it helps crack the ground and otherwise pave the way for earthquakes. -  George Jiracek, San Diego State University.
Phil Wannamaker, a geophysicist at the University of Utah’s Energy and Geoscience Institute, on New Zealand’s South Island with the Inland Kaikoura Range in the background. New Zealand sits atop one of the youngest ‘subduction zones’ on Earth, where the Pacific Plate of Earth’s crust is diving beneath New Zealand, which sits on the Australian Plate. Wannamaker led a study that showed how and where water is released in a young subduction zone so that it helps crack the ground and otherwise pave the way for earthquakes. – George Jiracek, San Diego State University.

New Zealand is the site of one of the world’s youngest subduction zones, where the Pacific Plate of Earth’s crust dives beneath the Australian Plate. Now, a University of Utah study shows how water deep underground helps the subduction zone mature and paves the way for it to generate powerful earthquakes.

The study in the Aug. 6 issue of the journal Nature “expands our understanding of the sources of earthquake failure,” says Phil Wannamaker, the study’s main author and a geophysicist at the University of Utah’s Energy and Geoscience Institute.

“It hasn’t been on people’s minds that fluid-generating processes way out of sight reach up and cause damage right under our feet,” he adds.

Understanding how one of Earth’s moving tectonic plates can dive or subduct beneath another to create earthquake-generating faults is important because subduction and faulting “are major processes all over the world,” especially in the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean, Wannamaker says.

Wannamaker conducted the study with University of Utah geophysics student Virginie Maris; geophysicists George Jiracek of San Diego State University and Yasuo Ogawa of the Tokyo Institute of Technology; and five coauthors from New Zealand’s government geology institute, GNS Science: geophysicists T. Grant Caldwell, Hugh Bibby and Wiebke Heise; student Graham Hill; and field technician Stewart Bennie.

Wannamaker says the study was financed by a $395,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. With additional funding from Japan and from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Wannamaker estimates the total study cost at $600,000.

Subducting the Kiwis

New Zealand includes two major islands – the North Island and less populated South Island – that extend roughly northeast to southwest in the Pacific Ocean southeast of Australia. Like other nations along the Pacific “Ring of Fire” – including the western coast of North America – New Zealand sits atop a boundary between two of Earth’s slowly moving tectonic plates, and thus has earthquakes and volcanism.

The plates, which can be 100 miles thick, include Earth’s crust and the upper part of the mantle, the rock layer beneath the crust. New tectonic plates are born as volcanic eruptions at mid-ocean ridges add new rock to the plates on both sides of the ridges, like twin conveyor belts moving away from a ridge.

At the other end of these conveyor belts, where an oceanic plate collides with a continental plate, the seafloor plate subducts – or dives downward at a roughly 45-degree angle – beneath the continental plate, a process that generates earthquakes and volcanism.

New Zealand’s subduction zone – the Hikurangi subduction zone – is considered young because only during the past 20 million years did the edge of the Pacific Plate collide with the Australian Plate in New Zealand and begin diving beneath it.

The zone includes two kinds of quake-generating motions because the Pacific Plate is colliding with the Australian Plate at New Zealand at an angle instead of head-on. Thus, the Pacific Plate not only is moving northwest and diving under the Australian Plate, but it also is sliding southwest under the Australian Plate at the same time.

So while the colliding plates create quake forces like those seen in other subduction zones such as the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the oblique movement also generates “strike-slip” pressures like those that created California’s San Andreas fault. The oblique pressure has created four major strike-slip faults extending northeast to southwest along the length of the northern part of the South Island. Major earthquakes to nearly magnitude 8 have occurred along these and related faults over the past 200 years.

Picturing Water within the Earth

Rocks exposed from old, defunct subduction zones as well as current “Ring of Fire” volcanic rocks show water is released during subduction, so the researchers wanted to determine the role of this water in the maturation of the young subduction zone.

They used a method called magnetotelluric sounding, which is similar to using X-rays for CAT scans of patients and seismic waves to search for oil and gas.

Magnetotelluric sounding uses natural electromagnetic waves generated by the sun and by lightning bolts. Most such waves travel through the air, but “a portion penetrate the Earth, scatter off rock structures of interest and return to the surface, where we can measure them” using fancy volt meters, Wannamaker says.

As the electromagnetic waves pass through Earth’s interior, they travel faster or slower depending on the extent to which rock and other material conducts or resists electricity. Water is more conductive, so it can be detected by this technique.

During 2006 and 2007, Wannamaker and colleagues made measurements at 67 sites along a 125-mile line crossing the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island.

Patterns of backscattered electromagnetic radiation from all the stations then were assembled by a computer program to create an image of Earth’s crust and upper mantle along a cross section of New Zealand’s South Island.

The image revealed large amounts of water in different areas and at different depths, which in turn suggested three distinct processes by which the fluid deforms the crust above it and helps pave the way for earthquakes:

  • Beneath the South Island’s eastern coast, where the Pacific Plate begins to dive under the Australian Plate, water is released about 10 miles underground. It comes from seafloor sediments that are squeezed as they are carried underground on the subducting Pacific Plate. Much of the water rises upward into the overlying crust of the Australian Plate, cracking the crustal rock further to create and widen existing cracks.

    This “mesh” of fault fractures “is weakening the crust and promoting the formation of new strike-slip faulting,” Wannamaker says.

  • Farther west, water is released from hydrated rock – rock with chemically bound water – within the subducting Pacific Plate. The water collects within cracks roughly 6 to 20 miles underground in the “ductile” or taffy-like part of the Earth’s crust.

    Such fluids help accommodate the oblique or southwesterly motion of the Pacific Plate under New Zealand – motion that created the strike-slip faults on the South Island.

    “These fluids certainly could burst upward into the strike-slip zone and trigger major earthquakes,” Wannamaker says. “And many smaller quakes have been centered along the edges of these reservoirs.”

  • The largest accumulation of water beneath the subduction zone also is the deepest and farthest west beneath the South Island. Freed by the action of heat and pressure on hydrated minerals, the water forms a huge plume extending upward from depths of 60 miles or more – something also seen in older, more mature subduction zones. It appears these fluids trigger major earthquakes – and did so during magnitude-7 and larger earthquakes in the Murchison area in the early 20th century, Wannamaker says.

    Faults in that area are high-angle thrusts, meaning that during quakes, ground on one side of the fault moves up and over the ground on the other side. Laws of rock mechanics say such faults should not rupture when they are steep, because it is difficult to push one block of ground up and over the other when the fault between them dips at an angle of more than 30 degrees – unless water is present. Yet big quakes near Murchison have occurred on faults that dip at angles of more than 55 degrees, Wannamaker says.

    That suggests subduction zone water makes quakes possible on such steep faults. “The fluid pressure is rising through the upper mantle and deep crust and into the upper crust, and props open the high-angle thrusts, allowing them fail,” Wannamaker says.

In older subduction zones – including the zone off New Zealand’s North Island – the water from great depths moves largely straight upward into the hot upper mantle, lowering the melting temperature of the rock and ultimately leading to the formation volcanoes on the land above. Subduction has not yet injected the upper mantle with enough water to trigger volcanism on the South Island, Wannamaker says.