Study of Chilean quake shows potential for future earthquake

Near real-time analysis of the April 1 earthquake in Iquique, Chile, showed that the 8.2 event occurred in a gap on the fault unruptured since 1877 and that the April event was not what the scientists had expected, according to an international team of geologists.

“We assumed that the area of the 1877 earthquake would eventually rupture, but all indications are that this 8.2 event was not the 8.8 event we were looking for,” said Kevin P. Furlong, professor of geophysics, Penn State. “We looked at it to see if this was the big one.”

But according to the researchers, it was not. Seismologists expect that areas of faults will react the same way over and over. However, the April earthquake was about nine times less energetic than the one in 1877 and was incapable of releasing all the stress on the fault, leaving open the possibility of another earthquake.

The Iquique earthquake took place on the northern portion of the subduction zone formed when the Nazca tectonic plate slides under the South American plate. This is one of the longest uninterrupted plate boundaries on the planet and the site of many earthquakes and volcanos. The 8.2 earthquake was foreshadowed by a systematic sequence of foreshocks recorded at 6.0, 6.5, 6.7 and 6.2 with each foreshock triggering the next until the main earthquake occurred.

These earthquakes relieved the stresses on some parts of the fault. Then the 8.2 earthquake relieved more stress, followed by a series of aftershocks in the range of 7.7. While the aftershocks did fill in some of the gaps left by the 8.2 earthquake, the large earthquake and aftershocks could not fill in the entire gap where the fault had not ruptured in a very long time. That area is unruptured and still under stress.

The foreshocks eased some of the built up stress on 60 to 100 miles of fault, and the main shock released stress on about 155 miles, but about 155 miles of fault remain unchanged, the researchers report today (Aug. 13) in Nature.

“There can still be a big earthquake there,” said Furlong. “It didn’t release the total hazard, but it told us something about this large earthquake area. That an 8.8 rupture doesn’t always happen.”

The researchers were able to do this analysis in near real time because of the availability of large computing power and previously laid groundwork.

The computing power allowed researchers to model the fault more accurately. In the past, subduction zones were modeled as if they were on a plane, but the plate that is subducting curves underneath the other plate creating a 3-dimensional fault line. The researchers used a model that accounted for this curving and so more accurately recreated the stresses on the real geology at the fault.

“One of the things the U.S. Geological Survey and we have been doing is characterizing the major tectonic settings,” said Furlong. “So when an earthquake is imminent, we don’t need a lot of time for the background.”

In essence, they are creating a library of information about earthquake faults and have completed the first level, a general set of information on areas such as Japan, South America and the Caribbean. Now they are creating the levels of north and south Japan or Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Knowing where the old earthquake occurred, how large it was and how long ago it happened, the researchers could look at the foreshocks, see how much stress they relieved and anticipate, at least in a small way, what would happen.

“This is what we need to do in the future in near real time for decision makers,” said Furl.

Taking the pulse of mountain formation in the Andes

Sedimentary deposits near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Bolivia are shown. These rocks contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano. -  Photo by Carmala Garzione/University of Rochester.
Sedimentary deposits near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Bolivia are shown. These rocks contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano. – Photo by Carmala Garzione/University of Rochester.

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, and colleagues sheds light on the mystery.

In a paper published in the latest Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Garzione explains that the Altiplano plateau in the central Andes-and most likely the entire mountain range-was formed through a series of rapid growth spurts.

“This study provides increasing evidence that the plateau formed through periodic rapid pulses, not through a continuous, gradual uplift of the surface, as was traditionally thought,” said Garzione. “In geologic terms, rapid means rising one kilometer or more over several millions of years, which is very impressive.”

It’s been understood that the Andes mountain range has been growing as the Nazca oceanic plate slips underneath the South American continental plate, causing the Earth’s crust to shorten (by folding and faulting) and thicken. But that left two questions: How quickly have the Andes risen to their current height, and what was the actual process that enabled their rise?

Several years ago (2006-2008), Garzione and several colleagues provided the first estimates of the timing and rates of the surface uplift of the central Andes (“Mountain Ranges Rise Much More Rapidly than Geologists Expected”) by measuring the ancient surface temperatures and rainfall compositions preserved in the soils of the central Altiplano, a plateau in Bolivia and Peru that sits about 12,000 feet above sea level. Garzione concluded that portions of the dense lower crust and upper mantle that act like an anchor on the base of the crust are periodically detached and sink through the mantle as the thickened continental plate heats up. Detachment of this dense anchor allows the Earth’s low density upper crust to rebound and rise rapidly.

More recently, Garzione and Andrew Leier, an assistant professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of South Carolina, used a relatively new temperature-recording technique in two separate studies in different regions of the Andes to determine whether pulses of rapid surface uplift are the norm, or the exception, for the formation of mountain ranges like the Andes.

Garzione and Leier (“Stable isotope evidence for multiple pulses of rapid surface uplift in the Central Andes, Bolivia”) both focused on the bonding behavior of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the mineral calcite that precipitated from rainwater; their results were similar.

Garzione worked in the southern Altiplano, collecting climate records preserved in ancient soils at both low elevations (close to sea level), where temperatures remained warm over the history of the Andes, and at high elevations where temperatures should have cooled as the mountains rose. The calcite found in the soil contains both the lighter isotopes of carbon and oxygen-12C and 16O-as well as the rare heavier isotopes-13C and 18O. Paleo-temperature estimates from calcite rely on the fact that heavy isotopes form stronger bonds. At lower temperatures, where atoms vibrate more slowly, the heavy isotope 13C-18O bonds would be more difficult to break, resulting in a higher concentration of 13C-18O bonds in calcite, compared to what is found at warmer temperatures. By measuring the abundance of heavy isotope bonds in both low elevation (warm) sites and high elevation (cooler) sites over time, Garzione used the temperature difference between the sites to estimate the elevation of various layers of ancient soils at specific points in time.

She found that the southern Altiplano region rose by about 2.5 kilometers between 16 million and 9 million years ago, which is considered a rapid rate in geologic terms. Garzione speculates that the pulsing action relates to a dense root that grows at the boundary of the lower crust and upper mantle. As the oceanic plate slips under the continental plate, the continental plate shortens and thickens, increasing the pressure on the lower crust. The basaltic composition of the lower crust converts to a very high-density rock called eclogite, which serves as an anchor to the low-density upper crust. As this root is forced deeper into the hotter part of the mantle, it heats to a temperature where it can be rapidly removed (over several million years), resulting in the rapid rise of the mountain range.

“What we are learning is that the Altiplano plateau formed by pulses of rapid surface uplift over several million years, separated by long periods (several tens of million years) of stable elevations,” said Garzione. “We suspect this process is typical of other high-elevation ranges, but more research is needed before we know for certain.”

The Goldilocks principle: New hypothesis explains earth’s continued habitability

Researchers from USC and Nanjing University in China have documented evidence suggesting that part of the reason that the Earth has become neither sweltering like Venus nor frigid like Mars lies with a built-in atmospheric carbon dioxide regulator – the geologic cycles that churn up the planet’s rocky surface.

Scientists have long known that “fresh” rock pushed to the surface via mountain formation effectively acts as a kind of sponge, soaking up the greenhouse gas CO2. Left unchecked, however, that process would simply deplete atmospheric CO2 levels to a point that would plunge the Earth into an eternal winter within a few million years during the formation of large mountain ranges like the Himalayas – which has clearly not happened.

And while volcanoes have long been pointed to as a source of carbon dioxide, alone they cannot balance out the excess uptake of carbon dioxide by large mountain ranges. Instead, it turns out that “fresh” rock exposed by uplift also emits carbon through a chemical weathering process, which replenishes the atmospheric carbon dioxide at a comparable rate.

“Our presence on Earth is dependent upon this carbon cycle. This is why life is able to survive,” said Mark Torres, lead author of a study disclosing the findings that appears in Nature on March 20. Torres, a doctoral fellow at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and a fellow at the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI), collaborated with Joshua West, professor of Earth Sciences at USC Dornsife, and Gaojun Li of Nanjing University in China.

While human-made atmospheric carbon dioxide increases are currently driving significant changes in the Earth’s climate, the geologic system has kept things balanced for million of years.

“The Earth is a bit like a big, natural recycler,” West said. Torres and West studied rocks taken from the Andes mountain range in Peru and found that weathering processes affecting rocks released far more carbon than previously estimated, which motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

The researchers noted that rapid erosion in the Andes unearths abundant pyrite – the shiny mineral known as “fool’s gold” because of its deceptive appearance – and its chemical breakdown produces acids that release CO2 from other minerals. These observations motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

Like many other large mountain ranges, such as the great Himalayas, the Andes began to form during the Cenozoic period, which began about 60 million years ago and happened to coincide with a major perturbation in the cycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Using marine records of the long-term carbon cycle, Torres, West, and Li reconstructed the balance between CO2 release and uptake caused by the uplift of large mountain ranges and found that the release of CO2 release by rock weathering may have played a large, but thus far unrecognized, role in regulating the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last roughly 60 million years.

Earthquake lights linked to rift environments, subvertical faults

Earthquake lights from Tagish Lake, Yukon-Alaska border region, around the 1st of July, probably 1972 or 1973 (exact date unknown). Estimated size: 1m diameter. Closest orbs slowly drifted up the mountain to join the more distant ones. -  Photo credit: Jim Conacher, used with permission
Earthquake lights from Tagish Lake, Yukon-Alaska border region, around the 1st of July, probably 1972 or 1973 (exact date unknown). Estimated size: 1m diameter. Closest orbs slowly drifted up the mountain to join the more distant ones. – Photo credit: Jim Conacher, used with permission

Rare earthquake lights are more likely to occur on or near rift environments, where subvertical faults allow stress-induced electrical currents to flow rapidly to the surface, according to a new study published in the Jan./Feb. issue of Seismological Research Letters.

From the early days of seismology, the luminous phenomena associated with some earthquakes have intrigued scholars. Earthquake lights (EQL) appear before or during earthquakes, but rarely after.

EQL take a variety of forms, including spheres of light floating through the air. Seconds before the 2009 L’Aquila, Italy earthquake struck, pedestrians saw 10-centimeter high flames of light flickering above the stone-paved Francesco Crispi Avenue in the town’s historical city center. On Nov. 12, 1988, a bright purple-pink globe of light moved through the sky along the St. Lawrence River near the city of Quebec, 11 days before a powerful quake. And in 1906, about 100 km northwest of San Francisco, a couple saw streams of light running along the ground two nights preceding that region’s great earthquake.

Continental rift environments now appear to be the common factor associated with EQL. In a detailed study of 65 documented EQL cases since 1600 A.D., 85 percent appeared spatially on or near rifts, and 97 percent appeared adjacent to subvertical faults (a rift, a graben, strike-slip or transform fault). Intraplate faults are associated with just 5 percent of Earth’s seismic activity, but 97 percent of documented cases of earthquake lights.

“The numbers are striking and unexpected,” said Robert Thériault, a geologist with the Ministère des Ressources Naturelles of Québec, who, along with colleagues, culled centuries of literature references, limiting the cases in this study to 65 of the best-documented events in the Americas and Europe.

“We don’t know quite yet why more earthquake light events are related to rift environments than other types of faults,” said Thériault, “but unlike other faults that may dip at a 30-35 degree angle, such as in subduction zones, subvertical faults characterize the rift environments in these cases.”

Two of the 65 EQL events are associated with subduction zones, but Thériault suggests there may be an unknown subvertical fault present. “We may not know the fault distribution beneath the ground,” said Thériault. “We have some idea of surface structures, but sedimentary layers or water may obscure the underlying fault structure.”

While the 65 earthquakes ranged in magnitude, from M 3.6 to 9.2, 80 percent were greater than M 5.0. The EQL varied in shape and extent, though most commonly appeared as globular luminous masses, either stationary or moving, as atmospheric illuminations or as flame-like luminosities issuing from the ground.

Timing and distance to the epicenter vary widely. Most EQL are seen before and/or during an earthquake, but rarely after, suggesting to the authors that the processes responsible for EQL formation are related to a rapid build-up of stress prior to fault rupture and rapid local stress changes during the propagation of the seismic waves. Stress-activated mobile electronic charge carriers, termed positive holes, flow swiftly along stress gradients. Upon reaching the surface, they ionize air molecules and generate the observed luminosities.

Eyewitness reports and security cameras captured a large number of light flashes during the 2007 Pisco, Peru M 8.0 earthquake. Together with seismic records obtained on a local university campus, the automatic security camera records allow for an exact timing and location of light flashes that illuminated a large portion of the night sky. The light flashes identified as EQL coincided with the passage of the seismic waves.

Thériault likes the account of a local L’Aquila resident, who, after seeing flashes of light from inside his home two hours before the main shock, rushed his family outside to safety.

“It’s one of the very few documented accounts of someone acting on the presence of earthquake lights,” said Thériault. “Earthquake lights as a pre-earthquake phenomenon, in combination with other types of parameters that vary prior to seismic activity, may one day help forecast the approach of a major quake,” said Thériault.

Irish chronicles reveal links between cold weather and volcanic eruptions

Medieval chronicles have given an international group of researchers a glimpse into the past to assess how historical volcanic eruptions affected the weather in Ireland up to 1500 years ago.

By critically assessing over 40,000 written entries in the Irish Annals and comparing them with measurements taken from ice cores, the researchers successfully linked the climatic aftermath of volcanic eruptions to extreme cold weather events in Ireland over a 1200-year period from 431 to 1649.

Their study, which has been published today, 6 June, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, showed that over this timescale up to 48 explosive volcanic eruptions could be identified in the Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP2) ice-core, which records the deposition of volcanic sulfate in annual layers of ice.

Of these 48 volcanic events, 38 were associated, closely in time, with 37 extreme cold events, which were identified by systematically examining written entries in the Irish Annals and picking out directly observed meteorological phenomena and conditions, such as heavy snowfall and frost, prolonged ice covering lakes and rivers, and contemporary descriptions of abnormally cold weather.

Lead author of the study, Dr Francis Ludlow, from the Harvard University Center for the Environment and Department of History, said: “It’s clear that the scribes of the Irish Annals were diligent reporters of severe cold weather, most probably because of the negative impacts this had on society and the biosphere.

“Our major result is that explosive volcanic eruptions are strongly, and persistently, implicated in the occurrence of cold weather events over this long timescale in Ireland. In their severity, these events are quite rare for the country’s mild maritime climate.”

Through the injection of sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere, volcanic eruptions can play a significant role in the regulation of the Earth’s climate. Sulphur dioxide gas is converted into sulphate aerosol particles after eruptions which reflect incoming sunlight and result in an overall temporary cooling of the Earth’s surface.

Whilst the global effects of recent eruptions are quite well-known, such as the Mount Pinatubo eruption almost 22 years ago (15 June 1991), less is known about their effects on climate before the beginning of instrumental weather recording, or their effects on regional scales; the Irish Annals provided an opportunity to explore both of these issues.

The Irish Annals contain over one million written words and around 40,000 distinct written entries, detailing major historical events on an annual basis, and providing both systematic and sustained reporting of meteorological extremes.

The dating and reliability of the Annals can be gauged by comparing reported events to those which are independently known, such as solar and lunar eclipses.

“With a few honourable exceptions, the Irish record of extreme events has only been used anecdotally, rather than systematically surveyed and exploited for the study of the climate history of Ireland and the North Atlantic, and so the richness of the record has been largely unrecognized,” continued Dr Ludlow.

Although the effect of big eruptions on the climate in summer is largely to cause cooling, during the winter, low-latitude eruptions in the tropics have instead been known to warm large parts of the northern hemisphere as they cause a strengthening of the westerly winds that brings, for example, warmer oceanic air to Europe; however, this study identified several instances when low-latitude eruptions appeared to correspond to extreme cold winters in Ireland.

One example is the 1600 eruption in Peru of Huaynaputina, which the researchers found, against expectations, to be associated with extreme cold winter weather in Ireland in the following years.

“The possibility that tropical eruptions may result in severe winter cooling for Ireland highlights the considerable complexity of the volcano-climate system in terms of the regional expression of the response of climate to volcanic disturbances.

“It is on the regional scale that we need to refine our understanding of this relationship as ultimately, it is on this scale that individuals and societies plan for extreme weather,” continued Dr Ludlow.

Discovery of 1,800-year-old ‘Rosetta Stone’ for tropical ice cores

This photo from a 1977 expedition to Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru shows clearly defined annual layers of ice and dust visible in the ice cap's margin. Researchers at the Ohio State University are using a set of ice cores taken from Quelccaya as a 'Rosetta Stone' for studying other ice cores taken from around the world. -  Photo by Lonnie Thompson, Courtesy of Ohio State University.
This photo from a 1977 expedition to Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru shows clearly defined annual layers of ice and dust visible in the ice cap’s margin. Researchers at the Ohio State University are using a set of ice cores taken from Quelccaya as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for studying other ice cores taken from around the world. – Photo by Lonnie Thompson, Courtesy of Ohio State University.

Two annually dated ice cores drawn from the tropical Peruvian Andes reveal Earth’s tropical climate history in unprecedented detail-year by year, for nearly 1,800 years.

Researchers at The Ohio State University retrieved the cores from a Peruvian ice cap in 2003, and then noticed some startling similarities to other ice cores that they had retrieved from Tibet and the Himalayas. Patterns in the chemical composition of certain layers matched up, even though the cores were taken from opposite sides of the planet.

In the April 4, 2013 online edition of the journal Science Express, they describe the find, which they call the first annually resolved “Rosetta Stone” with which to compare other climate histories from Earth’s tropical and subtropical regions over the last two millennia.

The cores provide a new tool for researchers to study Earth’s past climate, and better understand the climate changes that are happening today.

“These ice cores provide the longest and highest-resolution tropical ice core record to date,” said Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State and lead author of the study.

“In fact, having drilled ice cores throughout the tropics for more than 30 years, we now know that this is the highest-resolution tropical ice core record that is likely to be retrieved.”

The new cores, drilled from Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap, are special because most of their 1,800-year history exists as clearly defined layers of light and dark: light from the accumulated snow of the wet season, and dark from the accumulated dust of the dry season.

They are also special because of where they formed, atop the high Andean altiplano in southern Peru. Most of the moisture in the area comes from the east, in snowstorms fueled by moist air rising from the Amazon Basin. But the ice core-derived climate records from the Andes are also impacted from the west-specifically by El Niño, a temporary change in climate, which is driven by sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific.

El Niño thus leaves its mark on the Quelccaya ice cap as a chemical signature (especially in oxygen isotopes) indicating sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean over much of the past 1,800 years.

“We have been able to derive a proxy for sea surface temperatures that reaches back long before humans were able to make such measurements, and long before humans began to affect Earth’s climate,” Thompson said.

Ellen Mosley-Thompson, distinguished university professor of geography at Ohio State and director of the Byrd Polar Research Center, explained that the 2003 expedition to Quelccaya was the culmination of 20 years of work.

The Thompsons have drilled ice cores from glaciers atop the most remote areas of the planet-the Chinese Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, Kilimanjaro in Africa, and Papua Indonesia among others-to gauge Earth’s past climate. Each new core has provided a piece of the puzzle, as the researchers measured the concentrations of key chemicals preserved in thousands of years of accumulated ice.

A 1983 trip to Quelccaya yielded cores that earned the research team their first series of papers in Science. The remoteness of the site and the technology available at the time limited the quality of samples they could obtain, however. The nearest road was a two-day walk from the ice cap, so they were forced to melt the cores in the field and carry samples back as bottles of water. This made some chemical measurements impossible, and diminished the time resolution available from the cores.

“Due to the remoteness of the ice cap, we had to develop new tools such as a light-weight drill powered by solar panels to collect the 1983 cores. However, we knew there was much more information the cores could provide” Mosley-Thompson said. “Now the ice cap is just a six-hour walk from a new access road where a freezer truck can be positioned to preserve the cores. So we can now make better dust measurements along with a suite of chemical analyses that we couldn’t make before.”

The cores will provide a permanent record for future use by climate scientists, Thompson added. This is very important, as plants captured by the advancing ice cap 6,000 years ago are now emerging along its retreating margins, which shows that Quelccaya is now smaller than it has been in six thousand years.

“The frozen history from this tropical ice cap-which is melting away as Earth continues to warm-is archived in freezers at -30ºC so that creative people will have access to it 20 years from now, using instruments and techniques that don’t even exist today,” he said.

Peruvian tectonic plates move by earthquakes and non-seismic slip

Just a few years ago, Dan Farber happened to be doing field work in Peru with students when the 8.0 Pisco earthquake struck.As a scientist working in the active tectonics of the Peruvian Andes – funded through the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics – Farber was asked by colleagues if he could participate in a rapid response team to map the damage of the seismic deformation and install a system of geodetic stations.

He jumped at the opportunity to install a Global Positioning System (GPS) network to capture the post-seismic response and collected critical geological data for the understanding of the inter-plate dynamics of one of the Earth’s largest subduction zones – the Central Peru Megathrust.

In a new paper appearing in the May 6 edition of the journal Nature, Farber and international colleagues determined that the seismic slip on the Central Peru Megathrust is not dependent on earthquakes alone. As it turns out, movement along this subduction zone is caused by earthquakes as well as non-seismic (aseismic) related slip from steady or transient creep between or directly after earthquakes.

“Active faults are made up of areas that slip mostly during earthquakes and areas that mostly slip aseismically,” Farber said. “The size, location and frequency of earthquakes that a megathrust can generate depend on where and when aseismic creep is taking place.”

The 8.0 Pisco earthquake that occurred in 2007 ruptured the subduction interface – where load-bearing flat surfaces butt up – between the Nazca plate and the South American plate, an area that subducts about 6 centimeters per year. In this event, two distinct areas moved 60 seconds apart in a zone that had remained locked in between earthquakes. The event also triggered aseismic frictional afterslip on two adjacent areas.

The most prominent afterslip coincides with the Nazca ridge subduction, which seems to have repeatedly acted as a barrier to seismic rupture propagation in the past.

To sum up, aseismic (non-earthquake producing) slip accounts for as much as 50 percent to 70 percent of the slip on this portion of the megathrust in central Peru. Because much of the interface displacement is taken up aseismically, an earthquake the size of the 2007 earthquake is estimated to occur only every 250 years.