Foreshock series controls earthquake rupture

A long lasting foreshock series controlled the rupture process of this year’s great earthquake near Iquique in northern Chile. The earthquake was heralded by a three quarter year long foreshock series of ever increasing magnitudes culminating in a Mw 6.7 event two weeks before the mainshock. The mainshock (magnitude 8.1) finally broke on April 1st a central piece out of the most important seismic gap along the South American subduction zone. An international research team under leadership of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences now revealed that the Iquique earthquake occurred in a region where the two colliding tectonic plates where only partly locked.

The Pacific Nazca plate and the South American plate are colliding along South America’s western coast. While the Pacific sea floor submerges in an oceanic trench under the South American coast the plates get stressed until occasionally relieved by earthquakes. In about 150 years time the entire plate margin from Patagonia in the south to Panama in the north breaks once completely through in great earthquakes. This cycle is almost complete with the exception of a last segment – the seismic gap near Iquique in northern Chile. The last great earthquake in this gap occurred back in 1877. On initiative of the GFZ this gap was monitored in an international cooperation (GFZ, Institut de Physique du Globe Paris, Centro Sismologico National – Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Catolica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile) by the Integrated Plate Boundary Observatory Chile (IPOC), with among other instruments seismographs and cont. GPS. This long and continuous monitoring effort makes the Iquique earthquake the best recorded subduction megathrust earthquake globally. The fact that data of IPOC is distributed to the scientific community in near real time, allowed this timely analysis.

Ruptures in Detail

The mainshock of magnitude 8.1 broke the 150 km long central piece of the seismic gap, leaving, however, two large segments north and south intact. GFZ scientist Bernd Schurr headed the newly published study that appeared in the lastest issue of Nature Advance Online Publication: “The foreshocks skirted around the central rupture patch of the mainshock, forming several clusters that propagated from south to north.” The long-term earthquake catalogue derived from IPOC data revealed that stresses were increasing along the plate boundary in the years before the earthquake. Hence, the plate boundary started to gradually unlock through the foreshock series under increasing stresses, until it finally broke in the Iquique earthquake. Schurr further states: “If we use the from GPS data derived locking map to calculate the convergence deficit assuming the ~6.7 cm/yr convergence rate and subtract the earthquakes known since 1877, this still adds up to a possible M 8.9 earthquake.” This applies if the entire seismic gap would break at once. However, the region of the Iquique earthquake might now form a barrier that makes it more likely that the unbroken regions north and south break in separate, smaller earthquakes.

International Field Campaign

Despite the fact that the IPOC instruments delivered continuous data before, during and after the earthquake, the GFZ HART (Hazard And Risk Team) group went into the field to meet with international colleagues to conduct additional investigations. More than a dozen researchers continue to measure on site deformation and record aftershocks in the aftermath of this great rupture. Because the seismic gap is still not closed, IPOC gets further developed. So far 20 multi-parameter stations have been deployed. These consist of seismic broadband and strong-motion sensors, continuous GPS receivers, magneto-telluric and climate sensors, as well as creepmeters, which transmit data in near real-time to Potsdam. The European Southern astronomical Observatory has also been integrated into the observation network.

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.

Mine landslide triggered quakes

The April 10, 2013, landslide at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine contains enough debris to bury New York City's Central Park 66 feet deep, according to a new University of Utah study. The slide happened in the form of two rock avalanches 95 minutes apart. The first rock avalanche included grayer bedrock material seen around the margins of the lower half of the slide. The second rock avalanche is orange in color, both from bedrock and from waste rock from mining. The new study found the landslide triggered 16 small quakes. Such triggering has not been noted previously. The slide likely was the largest nonvolcanic landslide in North America's modern history. -  Kennecott Utah Copper.
The April 10, 2013, landslide at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper’s Bingham Canyon mine contains enough debris to bury New York City’s Central Park 66 feet deep, according to a new University of Utah study. The slide happened in the form of two rock avalanches 95 minutes apart. The first rock avalanche included grayer bedrock material seen around the margins of the lower half of the slide. The second rock avalanche is orange in color, both from bedrock and from waste rock from mining. The new study found the landslide triggered 16 small quakes. Such triggering has not been noted previously. The slide likely was the largest nonvolcanic landslide in North America’s modern history. – Kennecott Utah Copper.

Last year’s gigantic landslide at a Utah copper mine probably was the biggest nonvolcanic slide in North America’s modern history, and included two rock avalanches that happened 90 minutes apart and surprisingly triggered 16 small earthquakes, University of Utah scientists discovered.

The landslide – which moved at an average of almost 70 mph and reached estimated speeds of at least 100 mph – left a deposit so large it “would cover New York’s Central Park with about 20 meters (66 feet) of debris,” the researchers report in the January 2014 cover study in the Geological Society of America magazine GSA Today.

While earthquakes regularly trigger landslides, the gigantic landslide the night of April 10, 2013, is the first known to have triggered quakes. The slide occurred in the form of two huge rock avalanches at 9:30 p.m. and 11:05 p.m. MDT at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper’s open-pit Bingham Canyon Mine, 20 miles southwest of downtown Salt Lake City. Each rock avalanche lasted about 90 seconds.

While the slides were not quakes, they were measured by seismic scales as having magnitudes up to 5.1 and 4.9, respectively. The subsequent real quakes were smaller.

Kennecott officials closely monitor movements in the 107-year-old mine – which produces 25 percent of the copper used in the United States – and they recognized signs of increasing instability in the months before the slide, closing and removing a visitor center on the south edge of the 2.8-mile-wide, 3,182-foot-deep open pit, which the company claims is the world’s largest manmade excavation.

Landslides – including those at open-pit mines but excluding quake-triggered slides – killed more than 32,000 people during 2004-2011, the researchers say. But no one was hurt or died in the Bingham Canyon slide. The slide damaged or destroyed 14 haul trucks and three shovels and closed the mine’s main access ramp until November.

“This is really a geotechnical monitoring success story,” says the new study’s first author, Kris Pankow, associate director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and a research associate professor of geology and geophysics. “No one was killed, and yet now we have this rich dataset to learn more about landslides.”

There have been much bigger human-caused landslides on other continents, and much bigger prehistoric slides in North America, including one about five times larger than Bingham Canyon some 8,000 years ago at the mouth of Utah’s Zion Canyon.

But the Bingham Canyon Mine slide “is probably the largest nonvolcanic landslide in modern North American history,” said study co-author Jeff Moore, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

There have been numerous larger, mostly prehistoric slides – some hundreds of times larger. Even the landslide portion of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption was 57 times larger than the Bingham Canyon slide.

News reports initially put the landslide cost at close to $1 billion, but that may end up lower because Kennecott has gotten the mine back in operation faster than expected.

Until now, the most expensive U.S. landslide was the 1983 Thistle slide in Utah, which cost an estimated $460 million to $940 million because the town of Thistle was abandoned, train tracks and highways were relocated and a drainage tunnel built.

Pankow and Moore conducted the study with several colleagues from the university’s College of Mines and Earth Sciences: J. Mark Hale, an information specialist at the Seismograph Stations; Keith Koper, director of the Seismograph Stations; Tex Kubacki, a graduate student in mining engineering; Katherine Whidden, a research seismologist; and Michael K. McCarter, professor of mining engineering.

The study was funded by state of Utah support of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rockslides Measured up to 5.1 and 4.9 in Magnitude, but Felt Smaller

The University of Utah researchers say the Bingham Canyon slide was among the best-recorded in history, making it a treasure trove of data for studying slides.

Kennecott has estimated the landslide weighed 165 million tons. The new study estimated the slide came from a volume of rock roughly 55 million cubic meters (1.9 billion cubic feet). Rock in a landslide breaks up and expands, so Moore estimated the landslide deposit had a volume of 65 million cubic meters (2.3 billion cubic feet).

Moore calculated that not only would bury Central Park 66 feet deep, but also is equivalent to the amount of material in 21 of Egypt’s great pyramids of Giza.

The landslide’s two rock avalanches were not earthquakes but, like mine collapses and nuclear explosions, they were recorded on seismographs and had magnitudes that were calculated on three different scales:

  • The first slide at 9:30 p.m. MDT measured 5.1 in surface-wave magnitude, 2.5 in local or Richter magnitude, and 4.2 in duration or “coda” magnitude.

  • The second slide at 11:05 p.m. MDT measured 4.9 in surface-wave magnitude, 2.4 in Richter magnitude and 3.5 in coda magnitude.

Pankow says the larger magnitudes more accurately reflect the energy released by the rock avalanches, but the smaller Richter magnitudes better reflect what people felt – or didn’t feel, since the Seismograph Stations didn’t receive any such reports. That’s because the larger surface-wave magnitudes record low-frequency energy, while Richter and coda magnitudes are based on high-frequency seismic waves that people usually feel during real quakes.

So in terms of ground movements people might feel, the rock avalanches “felt like 2.5,” Pankow says. “If this was a normal tectonic earthquake of magnitude 5, all three magnitude scales would give us similar answers.”

The slides were detected throughout the Utah seismic network, including its most distant station some 250 miles south on the Utah-Arizona border, Pankow says.

The Landslide Triggered 16 Tremors

The second rock avalanche was followed immediately by a real earthquake measuring 2.5 in Richter magnitude and 3.0 in coda magnitude, then three smaller quakes – all less than one-half mile below the bottom of the mine pit.

The Utah researchers sped up recorded seismic data by 30 times to create an audio file in which the second part of the slide is heard as a deep rumbling, followed by sharp gunshot-like bangs from three of the subsequent quakes.

Later analysis revealed another 12 tiny quakes – measuring from 0.5 to minus 0.8 Richter magnitude. (A minus 1 magnitude has one-tenth the power of a hand grenade.) Six of these tiny tremors occurred between the two parts of the landslide, five happened during the two days after the slide, and one was detected 10 days later, on April 20. No quakes were detected during the 10 days before the double landslide.

“We don’t know of any case until now where landslides have been shown to trigger earthquakes,” Moore says. “It’s quite commonly the reverse.”

A Long, Fast Landslide Runout

The landslide, from top to bottom, fell 2,790 vertical feet, but its runout – the distance the slide traveled – was almost 10,072 feet, or just less than two miles.

“It was a bedrock landslide that had a characteristically fast and long runout – much longer than we would see for smaller rockfalls and rockslides,” Moore says.

While no one was present to measure the speed, rock avalanches typically move about 70 mph to 110 mph, while the fastest moved a quickly as 220 mph.

So at Bingham Canyon, “we can safely say the material was probably traveling at least 100 mph as it fell down the steepest part of the slope,” Moore says.

The researchers don’t know why the slide happened as two rock avalanches instead of one, but Moore says, “A huge volume like this can fail in one episode or in 10 episodes over hours.”

The Seismograph Stations also recorded infrasound waves from the landslide, which Pankow says are “sound waves traveling through the atmosphere that we don’t hear” because their frequencies are so low.

Both seismic and infrasound recordings detected differences between the landslide’s two rock avalanches. For example, the first avalanche had stronger peak energy at the end that was lacking in the second slide, Pankow says.

“We’d like to be able to use data like this to understand the physics of these large landslides,” Moore says.

The seismic and infrasound recordings suggest the two rock avalanches were similar in volume, but photos indicate the first slide contained more bedrock, while the second slide contained a higher proportion of mined waste rock – although both avalanches were predominantly bedrock.

Volcano discovered smoldering under a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica

Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range's migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. -  Doug Wiens
Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range’s migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. – Doug Wiens

It wasn’t what they were looking for but that only made the discovery all the more exciting.

In January 2010 a team of scientists had set up two crossing lines of seismographs across Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica. It was the first time the scientists had deployed many instruments in the interior of the continent that could operate year-round even in the coldest parts of Antarctica.

Like a giant CT machine, the seismograph array used disturbances created by distant earthquakes to make images of the ice and rock deep within West Antarctica.

There were big questions to be asked and answered. The goal, says Doug Wiens, professor of earth and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the project’s principle investigators, was essentially to weigh the ice sheet to help reconstruct Antarctica’s climate history. But to do this accurately the scientists had to know how the earth’s mantle would respond to an ice burden, and that depended on whether it was hot and fluid or cool and viscous. The seismic data would allow them to map the mantle’s properties.

In the meantime, automated-event-detection software was put to work to comb the data for anything unusual.

When it found two bursts of seismic events between January 2010 and March 2011, Wiens’ PhD student Amanda Lough looked more closely to see what was rattling the continent’s bones.

Was it rock grinding on rock, ice groaning over ice, or, perhaps, hot gases and liquid rock forcing their way through cracks in a volcanic complex?

Uncertain at first, the more Lough and her colleagues looked, the more convinced they became that a new volcano was forming a kilometer beneath the ice.

The discovery of the new as yet unnamed volcano is announced in the Nov. 17 advanced online issue of Nature Geoscience.

Following the trail of clues

The teams that install seismographs in Antarctica are given first crack at the data. Lough had done her bit as part of the WUSTL team, traveling to East Antarctica three times to install or remove stations in East Antarctica.

In 2010 many of the instruments were moved to West Antarctica and Wiens asked Lough to look at the seismic data coming in, the first large-scale dataset from this part of the continent.

“I started seeing events that kept occurring at the same location, which was odd, “Lough said. “Then I realized they were close to some mountains-but not right on top of them.”

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, maybe its just coincidence.’ But then I looked more closely and realized that the mountains were actually volcanoes and there was an age progression to the range. The volcanoes closest to the seismic events were the youngest ones.”

The events were weak and very low frequency, which strongly suggested they weren’t tectonic in origin. While low-magnitude seismic events of tectonic origin typically have frequencies of 10 to 20 cycles per second, this shaking was dominated by frequencies of 2 to 4 cycles per second.

Ruling out ice

But glacial processes can generate low-frequency events. If the events weren’t tectonic could they be glacial?

To probe farther, Lough used a global computer model of seismic velocities to “relocate” the hypocenters of the events to account for the known seismic velocities along different paths through the Earth. This procedure collapsed the swarm clusters to a third their original size.

It also showed that almost all of the events had occurred at depths of 25 to 40 kilometers (15 to 25 miles below the surface). This is extraordinarily deep-deep enough to be near the boundary between the earth’s crust and mantle, called the Moho, and more or less rules out a glacial origin.

It also casts doubt on a tectonic one. “A tectonic event might have a hypocenter 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) deep, but at 25 to 40 kilometers, these were way too deep,” Lough says.

A colleague suggested that the event waveforms looked like Deep Long Period earthquakes, or DPLs, which occur in volcanic areas, have the same frequency characteristics and are as deep. “Everything matches up,” Lough says.

An ash layer encased in ice

The seismologists also talked to Duncan Young and Don Blankenship of the University of Texas who fly airborne radar over Antarctica to produce topographic maps of the bedrock. “In these maps, you can see that there’s elevation in the bed topography at the same location as the seismic events,” Lough says.

The radar images also showed a layer of ash buried under the ice. “They see this layer all around our group of earthquakes and only in this area,” Lough says.

“Their best guess is that it came from Mount Waesche, an existing volcano near Mt Sidley. But that is also interesting because scientists had no idea when Mount Waesche was last active, and the ash layer is sets the age of the eruption at 8,000 years ago. “

What’s up down there?

The case for volcanic origin has been made. But what exactly is causing the seismic activity?

“Most mountains in Antarctica are not volcanic,” Wiens says, “but most in this area are. Is it because East and West Antarctica are slowly rifting apart? We don’t know exactly. But we think there is probably a hot spot in the mantle here producing magma far beneath the surface.”

“People aren’t really sure what causes DPLs,” Lough says. “It seems to vary by volcanic complex, but most people think it’s the movement of magma and other fluids that leads to pressure-induced vibrations in cracks within volcanic and hydrothermal systems.”

Will the new volcano erupt?

“Definitely,” Lough says. “In fact because of the radar shows a mountain beneath the ice I think it has erupted in the past, before the rumblings we recorded.

Will the eruptions punch through a kilometer or more of ice above it?

The scientists calculated that an enormous eruption, one that released a thousand times more energy than the typical eruption, would be necessary to breach the ice above the volcano.

On the other hand a subglacial eruption and the accompanying heat flow will melt a lot of ice. “The volcano will create millions of gallons of water beneath the ice-many lakes full,” says Wiens. This water will rush beneath the ice towards the sea and feed into the hydrological catchment of the MacAyeal Ice Stream, one of several major ice streams draining ice from Marie Byrd Land into the Ross Ice Shelf.

By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.

“We weren’t expecting to find anything like this,” Wiens says

Beneath Earth’s surface, scientists find long ‘fingers’ of heat

Slow-moving seismic waves, hotter than surrounding material, interact with plumes rising from the mantle to affect the formation of hotspot volcanic islands. -  Illustration: Scott French
Slow-moving seismic waves, hotter than surrounding material, interact with plumes rising from the mantle to affect the formation of hotspot volcanic islands. – Illustration: Scott French

Scientists seeking to understand the forces at work beneath the surface of the Earth have used seismic waves to detect previously unknown “fingers” of heat, some of them thousands of miles long, in Earth’s upper mantle. Their discovery, published Sept. 5 in Science Express, helps explain the “hotspot volcanoes” that give birth to island chains such as Hawai’i and Tahiti.

Many volcanoes arise at collision zones between the tectonic plates, but hotspot volcanoes form in the middle of the plates. Geologists have hypothesized that upwellings of hot, buoyant rock rise as plumes from deep within Earth’s mantle – the layer between the crust and the core that makes up most of Earth’s volume – and supply the heat that feeds these mid-plate volcanoes.

But some hotspot volcano chains are not easily explained by this simple model, a fact which suggests there are more complex interactions between these hot plumes and the upper mantle. Now, a computer modeling approach, developed by University of Maryland seismologist Vedran Lekic and colleagues at the University of California Berkeley, has produced new seismic wave imagery which reveals that the rising plumes are, in fact, influenced by a pattern of finger-like structures carrying heat deep beneath Earth’s oceanic plates.

Seismic waves are waves of energy produced by earthquakes, explosions and volcanic eruptions, which can travel long distances below Earth’s surface. As they travel through layers of different density and elasticity, their shape changes. A global network of seismographs records these changing waveforms. By comparing the waveforms from hundreds of earthquakes recorded at locations around the world, scientists can make inferences about the structures through which the seismic waves have traveled.

The process, known as seismic tomography, works in much the same way that CT scans (computed tomography) reveal structures hidden beneath the surface of the human body. But since we know much less about the structures below Earth’s surface, seismic tomography isn’t easy to interpret. “The Earth’s crust varies a lot, and being able to represent that variation is difficult, much less the structure deeper below” said Lekic, an assistant professor of geology at the College Park campus.

Until recently, analyses like the one in the study would have taken up to 19 years of computer time. While studying for his doctorate with the study’s senior author, UC Berkeley Prof. Barbara Romanowicz, Lekic developed a method to more accurately model waveform data while still keeping computer time manageable, which resulted in higher-resolution images of the interaction between the layers of Earth’s mantle.

By refining this method, a research team led by UC Berkeley graduate student Scott French found finger-like channels of low-speed seismic waves flowing about 120 to 220 miles below the sea floor, and stretching out in bands about 700 miles wide and 1,400 miles apart. The researchers also discovered a subtle but important difference in speed: at this depth, seismic waves typically travel about 2.5 to 3 miles per second, but the average seismic velocity in the channels was 4 percent slower. Because higher temperatures slow down seismic waves, the researchers infer that the channels are hotter than the surrounding material.

“We estimate that the slowdown we’re seeing could represent a temperature increase of up to 200 degrees Celsius,” or about 390 degrees Fahrenheit, said French, the study’s study lead author. At these depths, absolute temperatures in the mantle are about 1,300 degrees Celsius, or 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers said.

Geophysicists have long theorized that channels akin to those revealed in the computer model exist, and are interacting with the plumes in Earth’s mantle that feed hotspot volcanoes. But the new images reveal for the first time the extent, depth and shape of these channels. And they also show that the fingers align with the motion of the overlying tectonic plate. The researchers hypothesize that these channels may be interacting in complex ways with both the tectonic plates above them and the hot plumes rising from below.

“This global pattern of finger-like structures that we’re seeing, which has not been documented before, appears to reflect interactions between the upwelling plumes and the motion of the overlying plates,” Lekic said. “The deflection of the plumes into these finger-like channels represents an intermediate scale of convection in the mantle, between the large-scale circulation that drives plate motions and the smaller scale plumes, which we are now starting to image.”

“The exact nature of those interactions will need further study,” said French, “but we now have a clearer picture that can help us understand the ‘plumbing’ of Earth’s mantle responsible for hotspot volcano islands like Tahiti, Reunion and Samoa.”

Slow earthquakes may foretell larger events

Scanning electron microscope images showing localized shear surfaces in cross-section and oblique view. Sense of shear is top to the right Note striations on shear surface.  Similar patterns appear with serpentine. -  Haines, S. H.; Kaproth, B.; Marone, C.; Saffer, D. and B. A. van der Pluijm
Scanning electron microscope images showing localized shear surfaces in cross-section and oblique view. Sense of shear is top to the right Note striations on shear surface. Similar patterns appear with serpentine. – Haines, S. H.; Kaproth, B.; Marone, C.; Saffer, D. and B. A. van der Pluijm

Monitoring slow earthquakes may provide a basis for reliable prediction in areas where slow quakes trigger normal earthquakes, according to Penn State geoscientists.

“We currently don’t have any way to remotely monitor when land faults are about to move,” said Chris Marone, professor of geophysics. “This has the potential to change the game for earthquake monitoring and prediction, because if it is right and you can make the right predictions, it could be big.”

Marone and Bryan Kaproth-Gerecht, recent Ph.D. graduate, looked at the mechanisms behind slow earthquakes and found that 60 seconds before slow stick slip began in their laboratory samples, a precursor signal appeared.

Normal stick slip earthquakes typically move at a rate of three to 33 feet per second, but slow earthquakes, while they still stick and slip for movement, move at rates of about 0.004 inches per second taking months or more to rupture. However, slow earthquakes often occur near traditional earthquake zones and may precipitate potentially devastating earthquakes.

“Understanding the physics of slow earthquakes and identifying possible precursory changes in fault zone properties are increasingly important goals,” the researchers report on line in today’s (Aug. 15) issue of Science Express.

Using serpentine, a common mineral often found in slow earthquake areas, Marone and Kaproth-Gerecht performed laboratory experiments applying shear stress to rock samples so that the samples exhibited slow stick slip movement. The researchers repeated experiments 50 or more times and found that, at least in the laboratory, slow fault zones undergo a transition from a state that supports slow velocity below about 0.0004 inches per second to one that essentially stops movement above that spee

“We recognize that this is complicated and that velocity depends on the friction,” said Marone. “We don’t know for sure what is happening, but, from our lab experiments, we know that this phenomenon is occurring.”

The researchers think that what makes this unusual pattern of movement is that friction contact strength goes down as velocity goes up, but only for a small velocity range. Once the speed increases enough, the friction contact area becomes saturated. It can’t get any smaller and other physical properties take over, such as thermal effects. This mechanism limits the speed of slow earthquakes.
Marone and Kaproth-Gerecht also looked at the primary elastic waves and the secondary shear waves produced by their experiments.

“Here we see elastic waves moving and we know what’s going on with P and S waves and the acoustic speed,” said Marone. “This is important because this is what you can see in the field, what seismographs record.”

Marone notes that there are not currently sufficient measuring devices adjacent to known fault lines to make any type of prediction from the precursor signature of the movement of the elastic waves. It is, however, conceivable that with the proper instrumentation, a better picture of what happens before a fault moves in slip stick motion is possible and perhaps could lead to some type of predictions.

‘Highway from hell’ fueled Costa Rican volcano

Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht analyzed crystals formed as Irazú's magma cooled to establish how fast it traveled. -  Kim Martineau
Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht analyzed crystals formed as Irazú’s magma cooled to establish how fast it traveled. – Kim Martineau

If some volcanoes operate on geologic timescales, Costa Rica’s Irazú had something of a short fuse. In a new study in the journal Nature, scientists suggest that the 1960s eruption of Costa Rica’s largest stratovolcano was triggered by magma rising from the mantle over a few short months, rather than thousands of years or more, as many scientists have thought. The study is the latest to suggest that deep, hot magma can set off an eruption fairly quickly, potentially providing an extra tool for detecting an oncoming volcanic disaster.

“If we had had seismic instruments in the area at the time we could have seen these deep magmas coming,” said the study’s lead author, Philipp Ruprecht, a volcanologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We could have had an early warning of months, instead of days or weeks.”

Towering more than 10,000 feet and covering almost 200 square miles, Irazú erupts about every 20 years or less, with varying degrees of damage. When it awakened in 1963, it erupted for two years, killing at least 20 people and burying hundreds of homes in mud and ash. Its last eruption, in 1994, did little damage.

Irazú sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where oceanic crust is slowly sinking beneath the continents, producing some of earth’s most spectacular fireworks. Conventional wisdom holds that the mantle magma feeding those eruptions rises and lingers for long periods of time in a mixing chamber several miles below the volcano. But ash from Irazú’s prolonged explosion is the latest to suggest that some magma may travel directly from the upper mantle, covering more than 20 miles in a few months.

“There has to be a conduit from the mantle to the magma chamber,” said study co-author Terry Plank, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty. “We like to call it the highway from hell.”

Their evidence comes from crystals of the mineral olivine separated from the ashes of Irazú’s 1963-1965 eruption, collected on a 2010 expedition to the volcano. As magma rising from the mantle cools, it forms crystals that preserve the conditions in which they formed. Unexpectedly, Irazú’s crystals revealed spikes of nickel, a trace element found in the mantle. The spikes told the researchers that some of Irazú’s erupted magma was so fresh the nickel had not had a chance to diffuse.

“The study provides one more piece of evidence that it’s possible to get magma from the mantle to the surface in very short order,” said John Pallister, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in Vancouver, Wash. “It tells us there’s a potentially shorter time span we need to worry about.”

Deep, fast-rising magma has been linked to other big events. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed so much gas and ash into the atmosphere that it cooled Earth’s climate. In the weeks before the eruption, seismographs recorded hundreds of deep earthquakes that USGS geologist Randall White later attributed to magma rising from the mantle-crust boundary. In 2010, a chain of eruptions at Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that caused widespread flight cancellations also indicated that some magma was coming from down deep. Small earthquakes set off by the eruptions suggested that the magma in Eyjafjallajökull’s last two explosions originated 12 miles and 15 miles below the surface, according to a 2012 study by University of Cambridge researcher Jon Tarasewicz in Geophysical Research Letters.

Volcanoes give off many warning signs before a blow-up. Their cones bulge with magma. They vent carbon dioxide and sulfur into the air, and throw off enough heat that satellites can detect their changing temperature. Below ground, tremors and other rumblings can be detected by seismographs. When Indonesia’s Mount Merapi roared to life in late October 2010, officials led a mass evacuation later credited with saving as many as 20,000 lives.

Still, the forecasting of volcanic eruptions is not an exact science. Even if more seismographs could be placed along the flanks of volcanoes to detect deep earthquakes, it is unclear if scientists would be able to translate the rumblings into a projected eruption date. Most problematically, many apparent warning signs do not lead to an eruption, putting officials in a bind over whether to evacuate nearby residents.

“[Several months] leaves a lot of room for error,” said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University who writes the “Eruptions” blog for Wired magazine. “In volcanic hazards you have very few shots to get people to leave.”

Scientists may be able to narrow the window by continuing to look for patterns between eruptions and the earthquakes that precede them. The Nature study also provides a real-world constraint for modeling how fast magma travels to the surface.

“If this interpretation is correct, you start having a speed limit that your models of magma transport have to catch,” said Tom Sisson, a USGS volcanologist based at Menlo Park, Calif.

Olivine minerals with nickel spikes similar to Irazú’s have been found in the ashes of arc volcanoes in Mexico, Siberia and the Cascades of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, said Lamont geochemist Susanne Straub, whose ideas inspired the study. “It’s clearly not a local phenomenon,” she said. The researchers are currently analyzing crystals from past volcanic eruptions in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Chile and Tonga, but are unsure how many will bear Irazú’s fast-rising magma signature. “Some may be capable of producing highways from hell and some may not,” said Ruprecht.

Storms, soccer matches hidden in seismometer noise

In the days of sail, sailors dreaded rounding the Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, because of the violence of the storms in Drake Passage. Geologists at Washington University think that water waves excited by these and other storms in the Southern Atlantic Ocean may be converted to seismic waves off the west coast of Africa and travel through the solid earth to seismometers, which pick them up as 'noise.' -  Dave Munroe/National Science Foundation
In the days of sail, sailors dreaded rounding the Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, because of the violence of the storms in Drake Passage. Geologists at Washington University think that water waves excited by these and other storms in the Southern Atlantic Ocean may be converted to seismic waves off the west coast of Africa and travel through the solid earth to seismometers, which pick them up as ‘noise.’ – Dave Munroe/National Science Foundation

If you wander up to a seismograph in a museum, unless you are lucky enough to be there right during an earthquake, all you will see is a small wiggly signal being recorded.

What’s inside the wiggles is called noise by seismologists, because the signal is always there and originates from the normal activity of the earth between the jolts caused by large earthquakes.

Up until recently, few researchers paid any heed to these apparently boring signals – analyzing them, it was thought, would be like critiquing elevator music.

But now a seismologist and his adviser from Washington University in St. Louis, building on a serendipitous, humorous find of three years ago linking seismic noise and soccer, have discovered a source of seismic noise in Africa near the island of Bioko in the Bight of Bonny in the Gulf of Guinea. Improbable as it may seem the strength of this source varies with the intensity of storm activity in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. During the largest storms, seismic waves from the Bight of Bonny are recorded by broadband seismometers all around the world.

Washington University doctoral candidate Garrett Euler, using a mathematical technique called cross correlation, analyzed four arrays of broadband seismometers in Cameroon, South Africa, Ethiopia and Tanzania and found that seismic noise oscillating at 28 and 26 second periods originates in the Bight of Bonny and varies with the intensity of storm activity in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. During the largest storms, seismic waves from the Bight of Bonny are recorded by broadband seismometers all around the world.

Although the exact mechanism causing seismic noise near Africa is unknown, Euler speculates that long-period ocean waves from storms in the Southern Atlantic Ocean reflect off the coast of Africa and focus near the island of Bioko. The interaction of the waves with the shallow seafloor changes the ocean wave energy into seismic waves that travel through solid earth. The noise source was first discovered by Jack Oliver, PhD, of Columbia University in 1962, but Euler’s work is the first to accurately locate the source.

“It’s said that one researcher’s noise is another’s signal,” says Euler’s co-advisor Douglas A. Wiens, PhD, professor and chair of Washington University’s earth and planetary sciences department in Arts & Sciences. “When we don’t understand it, we call it noise. When we do, we call it a signal. In the past, this kind of data didn’t stick out at all, but just recently people are coming to grips with how to analyze it. There are intriguing possibilities for what noise might reveal.”

Although seismic noise analysis is still developing, some seismologists are modeling noise to look for a signature that could reveal a global warming effect. For instance, as the number of storms increase, perhaps there are corresponding fluctuations in seismic noise. Others are considering using seismic noise to map volcanic magma chambers. There has even been some very preliminary work exploring the possibility that seismic noise might predict earthquakes. The idea is that the wave speed of a region might change as stress builds up before an earthquake.

Euler gave a presentation on his observations at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this December.

“We have some very bizarre observations that we’re still trying to figure out,” says Euler, of his initial data. “One is the signal is at longer periods than we’d expected. It has multiple peaks in frequency – it ‘hums’ at 28 seconds, as well as 26 seconds. It’s really, really strong during some particular times that correlate with storms at sea.

“Another observation is that the signal shifts its location with frequency. The source of the 28-second period band is about 300 kilometers from the 26-second source, which is essentially at Mount Cameroon.”

Cross correlation compares the similarity of two seismic signals, usually recorded at two different locations, as a function of the time lag between them – essentially sliding one signal past the other until they match up. Peaks in the correlation function correspond to the average seismic velocity between the two locations. To cross correlate seismic noise, though, Euler faces a conundrum because there is no well-defined termination of seismic noise.

“This noise is made up of a cacophony of overlapping signals across quite long seismic records that have to be averaged, and that information comprises this noise field,” he says.

Euler wandered into the field of seismic noise in 2007 when he found consistent spikes in noise from one of 32 different seismic stations in Cameroon. The spikes turned out to correspond with joyous, celebratory foot-stomping of Cameroon’s avid soccer fans at various cities after goals were scored or key plays made during the African Cup of Nations games in 2006.

This was the first time widespread anthropogenic noise – created by humans – had been found in seismic signals. And it was the first known reporting of “footquakes.”

“When I got that data, I was stumped, because there hadn’t been any earthquakes recorded during that time,” he says. “We finally put two and two together and saw this as the result of thousands of fans spread out over many miles, reacting to things ranging from a goal, to the reaction of a star player, to the ultimate, a win. There were slight fluctuations in all the scenarios. That was the start of my interest in seismic noise. It’s grown a lot since.”