New view of Rainier’s volcanic plumbing

This image was made by measuring how the ground conducts or resists electricity in a study co-authored by geophysicist Phil Wannamaker of the University of Utah Energy & Geoscience Institute. It  shows the underground plumbing system that provides molten and partly molten rock to the magma chamber beneath the Mount Rainier volcano in Washington state. The scale at left is miles depth. The scale at bottom is miles from the Pacific Coast. The Juan de Fuca plate of Earth's Pacific seafloor crust and upper mantle is shown in blue on the left half of the image as it dives or 
'subducts' eastward beneath Washington state. The reddish orange and yellow colors represent molten and partly molten rock forming atop the Juan de Fuca plate or 'slab.' The image shows the rock begins to melt about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier (the red triangle at top). Some is pulled downward and eastward as the slab keeps diving, but other melts move upward to the orange magma chamber shown under but west of Mount Rainier. The line of sensors used to make this image were placed north of the 14,410-foot peak, so the image may be showing a lobe of the magma chamber that extends northwest of the mountain. Red ovals on the left half of the page are the hypocenters of earthquakes. -  R Shane McGary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
This image was made by measuring how the ground conducts or resists electricity in a study co-authored by geophysicist Phil Wannamaker of the University of Utah Energy & Geoscience Institute. It shows the underground plumbing system that provides molten and partly molten rock to the magma chamber beneath the Mount Rainier volcano in Washington state. The scale at left is miles depth. The scale at bottom is miles from the Pacific Coast. The Juan de Fuca plate of Earth’s Pacific seafloor crust and upper mantle is shown in blue on the left half of the image as it dives or
‘subducts’ eastward beneath Washington state. The reddish orange and yellow colors represent molten and partly molten rock forming atop the Juan de Fuca plate or ‘slab.’ The image shows the rock begins to melt about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier (the red triangle at top). Some is pulled downward and eastward as the slab keeps diving, but other melts move upward to the orange magma chamber shown under but west of Mount Rainier. The line of sensors used to make this image were placed north of the 14,410-foot peak, so the image may be showing a lobe of the magma chamber that extends northwest of the mountain. Red ovals on the left half of the page are the hypocenters of earthquakes. – R Shane McGary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

By measuring how fast Earth conducts electricity and seismic waves, a University of Utah researcher and colleagues made a detailed picture of Mount Rainier’s deep volcanic plumbing and partly molten rock that will erupt again someday.

“This is the most direct image yet capturing the melting process that feeds magma into a crustal reservoir that eventually is tapped for eruptions,” says geophysicist Phil Wannamaker, of the university’s Energy & Geoscience Institute and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “But it does not provide any information on the timing of future eruptions from Mount Rainier or other Cascade Range volcanoes.”

The study was published today in the journal Nature by Wannamaker and geophysicists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the College of New Jersey and the University of Bergen, Norway.

In an odd twist, the image appears to show that at least part of Mount Rainier’s partly molten magma reservoir is located about 6 to 10 miles northwest of the 14,410-foot volcano, which is 30 to 45 miles southeast of the Seattle-Tacoma area.

But that could be because the 80 electrical sensors used for the experiment were placed in a 190-mile-long, west-to-east line about 12 miles north of Rainier. So the main part of the magma chamber could be directly under the peak, but with a lobe extending northwest under the line of detectors, Wannamaker says.

The top of the magma reservoir in the image is 5 miles underground and “appears to be 5 to 10 miles thick, and 5 to 10 miles wide in east-west extent,” he says. “We can’t really describe the north-south extent because it’s a slice view.”

Wannamaker estimates the reservoir is roughly 30 percent molten. Magma chambers are like a sponge of hot, soft rock containing pockets of molten rock.

The new image doesn’t reveal the plumbing tying Mount Rainier to the magma chamber 5 miles below it. Instead, it shows water and partly molten and molten rock are generated 50 miles underground where one of Earth’s seafloor crustal plates or slabs is “subducting” or diving eastward and downward beneath the North America plate, and how and where those melts rise to Rainier’s magma chamber.

The study was funded largely by the National Science Foundation’s Earthscope program, which also has made underground images of the United States using seismic or sound-wave tomography, much like CT scans show the body’s interior using X-rays.

The new study used both seismic imaging and magnetotelluric measurements, which make images by showing how electrical and magnetic fields in the ground vary due to differences in how much underground rock and fluids conduct or resist electricity.

Wannamaker says it is the most detailed cross-section view yet under a Cascades volcanic system using electrical and seismic imaging. Earlier seismic images indicated water and partly molten rock atop the diving slab. The new image shows melting “from the surface of the slab to the upper crust, where partly molten magma accumulates before erupting,” he adds.

Wannamaker and Rob L. Evans, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, conceived the study. First author R Shane McGary – then at Woods Hole and now at the College of New Jersey – did the data analysis. Other co-authors were Jimmy Elsenbeck of Woods Hole and St├ęphane Rondenay of the University of Bergen.

Mount Rainier: Hazardous Backdrop to Metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma

Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascades, “is an active volcano that will erupt again,” says the U.S. Geological Survey. Rainier sits atop volcanic flows up to 36 million years old. An ancestral Rainier existed 2 million to 1 million years ago. Frequent eruptions built the mountain’s modern edifice during the past 500,000 years. During the past 11,000 years, Rainier erupted explosively dozens of times, spewing ash and pumice.

Rainier once was taller until it collapsed during an eruption 5,600 years ago to form a large crater open to the northeast, much like the crater formed by Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. The 5,600-year-old eruption sent a huge mudflow west to Puget Sound, covering parts or all of the present sites of the Port of Tacoma, Seattle suburbs Kent and Auburn, and the towns Puyallup, Orting, Buckley, Sumner and Enumclaw.

Rainier’s last lava flows were 2,200 years ago, the last flows of hot rock and ash were 1,100 years ago and the last big mudflow 500 years ago. There are disputed reports of steam eruptions in the 1800s.

Subduction Made Simple – and a Peek beneath a Peak

The “ring of fire” is a zone of active volcanoes and frequent earthquake activity surrounding the Pacific Ocean. It exists where Earth’s tectonic plates collide – specifically, plates that make up the seafloor converge with plates that carry continents.

From Cape Mendocino in northern California and north past Oregon, Washington state and into British Columbia, an oceanic plate is being pushed eastward and downward – a process called subduction – beneath the North American plate. This relatively small Juan de Fuca plate is located between the huge Pacific plate and the Pacific Northwest.

New seafloor rock – rich with water in cracks and minerals – emerges from an undersea volcanic ridge some 250 miles off the coast, from northern California into British Columbia. That seafloor adds to the western edge of the Juan de Fuca plate and pushes it east-northeast under the Pacific Northwest, as far as Idaho.

The part of the plate diving eastward and downward is called the slab, which ranges from 30 to 60 miles thick as it is jammed under the North American plate. The part of the North American plate above the diving slab is shaped like a wedge.

When the leading, eastern edge of the diving slab descends deep enough, where pressures and temperatures are high, water-bearing minerals such as chlorite and amphibole release water from the slab, and the slab and surrounding mantle rock begin to melt. That is why the Cascade Range of active volcanoes extends north-to-south – above the slab and parallel but about 120 miles inland from the coast – from British Columbia south to Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak in northern California.

In the new image, yellow-orange-red areas correspond to higher electrical conductivity (or lower resistivity) in places where fluids and melts are located.

The underground image produced by the new study shows where water and molten rock accumulate atop the descending slab, and the route they take to the magma chamber that feeds eruptions of Mount Rainier:

– The rock begins to melt atop the slab about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier. Wannamaker says it is best described as partly molten rock that contains about 2 percent water and “is a mush of crystals within an interlacing a network of molten rock.”

– Some water and partly molten rock actually gets dragged downward atop the descending slab, to depths of 70 miles or more.

– Other partly molten rock rises up through the upper mantle wedge, crosses into the crust at a depth of about 25 miles, and then rises into Rainier’s magma chamber – or at least the lobe of the chamber that crosses under the line of sensors used in the study. Evidence suggests the magma moves upward at least 0.4 inches per year.

– The new magnetotelluric image also shows a shallower zone of fluid perhaps 60 miles west of Rainier and 25 miles deep at the crust-mantle boundary. Wannamaker says it is largely water released from minerals as the slab is squeezed and heated as it dives.

The seismic data were collected during 2008-2009 for other studies. The magnetotelluric data were gathered during 2009-2010 by authors of the new study.

Wannamaker and colleagues placed an east-west line of magnetotelluric sensors: 60 that made one-day measurements and looked as deep as 30 miles into the Earth, and 20 that made measurements for a month and looked at even greater depths.

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.

Quake-triggered landslides pose significant hazard for Seattle, new study details potential damage

Locations of each zoom-in are shown on the map of Seattle at right. A) Coastal bluffs in the northern part of Seattle are most affected when soils are saturated. B) There are several areas along the I-5 corridor that are highly susceptible to landsliding for all soil saturation levels, such as the area shown here near the access point to the West Seattle bridge. C) The hillsides in West Seattle along the Duwamish valley are at risk of seismically induced landsliding, such as the area shown here. There are industrial as well as 59 residential buildings that could be affected by runout from landsliding in these areas. D) The coastal bluffs along Puget Sound in West Seattle on the hanging wall of the fault, such as the area shown here, are the most highly susceptible areas to landsliding in the city; numerous residential structures are at risk from both potential landslide source areas and runout. -  Allstadt/BSSA
Locations of each zoom-in are shown on the map of Seattle at right. A) Coastal bluffs in the northern part of Seattle are most affected when soils are saturated. B) There are several areas along the I-5 corridor that are highly susceptible to landsliding for all soil saturation levels, such as the area shown here near the access point to the West Seattle bridge. C) The hillsides in West Seattle along the Duwamish valley are at risk of seismically induced landsliding, such as the area shown here. There are industrial as well as 59 residential buildings that could be affected by runout from landsliding in these areas. D) The coastal bluffs along Puget Sound in West Seattle on the hanging wall of the fault, such as the area shown here, are the most highly susceptible areas to landsliding in the city; numerous residential structures are at risk from both potential landslide source areas and runout. – Allstadt/BSSA

A new study suggests the next big quake on the Seattle fault may cause devastating damage from landslides, greater than previously thought and beyond the areas currently defined as prone to landslides. Published online Oct. 22 by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), the research offers a framework for simulating hundreds of earthquake scenarios for the Seattle area.

“A major quake along the Seattle fault is among the worst case scenarios for the area since the fault runs just south of downtown. Our study shows the need for dedicated studies on seismically induced landsliding” said co-author Kate Allstadt, doctoral student at University of Washington.

Seattle is prone to strong shaking as it sits atop the Seattle Basin – a deep sedimentary basin that amplifies ground motion and generates strong seismic waves that tend to increase the duration of the shaking. The broader region is vulnerable to earthquakes from multiple sources, including deep earthquakes within the subducted Juan de Fuca plate, offshore megathrust earthquakes on Cascadia subduction zone and the shallow crustal earthquakes within the North American Plate.

For Seattle, a shallow crustal earthquake close to the city would be most damaging. The last major quake along the Seattle fault was in 900 AD, long before the city was established, though native people lived in the area. The earthquake triggered giant landslides along Lake Washington, causing entire blocks of forest to slide into the lake.

“There’s a kind of haunting precedence that tells us that we should pay attention to a large earthquake on this fault because it happened in the past,” said Allstadt, who also serves as duty seismologist for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. John Vidale of University of Washington and Art Frankel of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are co-authors of the study, which was funded by the USGS.

While landslides triggered by earthquakes have caused damage and casualties worldwide, they have not often been the subject of extensive quantitative study or fully incorporated into seismic hazard assessments, say authors of this study that looks at just one scenario among potentially hundreds for a major earthquake in the Seattle area.

Dividing the area into a grid of 210-meter cells, they simulated ground motion for a magnitude 7 Seattle fault earthquake and then further subdivided into 5-meter cells, applying anticipated amplification of shaking due to the shallow soil layers. This refined framework yielded some surprises.

“One-third of the landslides triggered by our simulation were outside of the areas designated by the city as prone to landsliding,” said Allstadt. “A lot of people assume that all landslides occur in the same areas, but those triggered by rainfall or human behavior have a different triggering mechanism than landslides caused by earthquakes so we need dedicated studies.”

While soil saturation — whether the soil is dry or saturated with water – is the most important factor when analyzing the potential impact of landslides, the details of ground motion rank second. The amplification of ground shaking, directivity of seismic energy and geological features that may affect ground motion are very important to the outcome of ground failure, say authors.

The authors stress that this is just one randomized scenario study of many potential earthquake scenarios that could strike the city. While the results do not delineate the exact areas that will be affected in a future earthquake, they do illustrate the extent of landsliding to expect for a similar event.

The study suggests the southern half of the city and the coastal bluffs, many of which are developed, would be hardest hit. Depending upon the water saturation level of the soil at the time of the earthquake, several hundred to thousands of buildings could be affected citywide. For dry soil conditions, there are more than 1000 buildings that are within all hazard zones, 400 of those in the two highest hazard designation zones. The analysis suggests landslides could also affect some inland slopes, threatening key transit routes and impeding recovery efforts. For saturated soil conditions, it is an order of magnitude worse, with 8000 buildings within all hazard zones, 5000 of those within the two highest hazard zones. These numbers only reflect the number of buildings in high-risk areas, not the number of buildings that would necessarily suffer damage.

“The extra time we took to include the refined ground motion detail was worth it. It made a significant difference to our understanding of the potential damage to Seattle from seismically triggered landslides,” said Allstadt, who would like to use the new framework to run many more scenarios to prepare for future earthquakes in Seattle.

Tremors between slip events: More evidence of great quake danger to Seattle




Scientists have discovered more small seismic tremor events lasting one to 70 hours that occur in somewhat regular patterns in a megathrust earthquake zone in Washington state and British Columbia.
Scientists have discovered more small seismic tremor events lasting one to 70 hours that occur in somewhat regular patterns in a megathrust earthquake zone in Washington state and British Columbia.

For most of a decade, scientists have documented unfelt and slow-moving seismic events, called episodic tremor and slip, showing up in regular cycles under the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. They last three weeks on average and release as much energy as a magnitude 6.5 earthquake.

Now scientists have discovered more small events, lasting one to 70 hours, which occur in somewhat regular patterns during the 15-month intervals between episodic tremor and slip events.

“There appear to be tremor swarms that repeat, both in terms of their duration and in where they are. We haven’t seen enough yet to say whether they repeat in regular time intervals,” said Kenneth Creager, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences.

“This continues to paint the picture of the possibility that a megathrust earthquake can occur closer to the Puget Sound region than was thought just a few years ago,” he said.

The phenomenon, which Creager will discuss today (Dec. 15) during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, is the latest piece of evidence as scientists puzzle out exactly what is happening deep below the surface near Washington state’s populous Interstate 5 corridor. He noted that the work shows that tremor swarms follow a size distribution similar to earthquakes, with larger events occurring much less frequently than small events.

The Cascadia subduction zone, where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate dips beneath the North American plate, runs just off the Pacific coast from northern California to the northern edge of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. It can be the source of massive megathrust earthquakes on the order of magnitude 9 about every 500 years. The last one occurred in 1700.

The fault along the central Washington coast, where the Pacific and Juan de Fuca plates are locked together most of the time but break apart from each other during a powerful megathrust earthquake, was believed to lie 80 miles or more from the Seattle area. But research has shown that the locked zone extends deeper and farther east than previously thought, bringing the edge of the rupture zone beneath the Olympic Mountains, perhaps 40 miles closer to the Seattle area. It is this locked area that can rupture to produce a megathrust earthquake that causes widespread heavy damage, comparable to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake or the great Alaska quake of 1964.

Episodic tremor and slip events appear to occur at the interface of the plates as they gradually descend beneath the surface, at depths of about 19 to 28 miles. The smaller tremors between slip episodes, what Creager refers to as inter-episodic tremor and slip events, appear to occur at the interface of the plates a little farther east and a few miles deeper.

“There’s a whole range of events that take place on or near the plate interface. Each improvement in data collection and processing reveals new discoveries,” Creager said.

Episodic tremor and slip events often begin in the area of Olympia, Wash., and move northward to southern Vancouver Island over a three-week period, but scientists have yet to pin down such patterns among the smaller tremors that occur between the slip events.

Because the two tectonic plates are locked together, stress builds at their interface as they collide with each other at a rate of about 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) a year. The slip events and smaller tremors ease some of that stress locally, Creager said, but they don’t appear to account for all of it.

“Each one of these slip events puts more stress on the area of the plate boundary where megathrust earthquakes occur, which is shallower and farther to the west, bringing you closer to the next big event,” he said. “There’s nothing to tell you which one will be the trigger.”

Since the slip events and intervening small tremors don’t accommodate all of the stress built up on the fault, scientists are getting a better idea of just what the hazard from a megathrust earthquake is in the Seattle area. One benefit from that is the ability to revise building codes so structures will be better able to withstand the immense shaking from a great quake, particularly if the source is substantially closer to the city than it was previously expected to be.

“We’d like to go back and see how much slip has occurred in these slip events, compared to how much should have occurred,” Creager said. “Then we’ll know how much of that slip will have to be accommodated in a megathrust earthquake, or through other processes.”