UW team explores large, restless volcanic field in Chile

If Brad Singer knew for sure what was happening three miles under an odd-shaped lake in the Andes, he might be less eager to spend a good part of his career investigating a volcanic field that has erupted 36 times during the last 25,000 years. As he leads a large scientific team exploring a region in the Andes called Laguna del Maule, Singer hopes the area remains quiet.

But the primary reason to expend so much effort on this area boils down to one fact: The rate of uplift is among the highest ever observed by satellite measurement for a volcano that is not actively erupting.

That uplift is almost definitely due to a large intrusion of magma — molten rock — beneath the volcanic complex. For seven years, an area larger than the city of Madison has been rising by 10 inches per year.

That rapid rise provides a major scientific opportunity: to explore a mega-volcano before it erupts. That effort, and the hazard posed by the restless magma reservoir beneath Laguna del Maule, are described in a major research article in the December issue of the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today.

“We’ve always been looking at these mega-eruptions in the rear-view mirror,” says Singer. “We look at the lava, dust and ash, and try to understand what happened before the eruption. Since these huge eruptions are rare, that’s usually our only option. But we look at the steady uplift at Laguna del Maule, which has a history of regular eruptions, combined with changes in gravity, electrical conductivity and swarms of earthquakes, and we suspect that conditions necessary to trigger another eruption are gathering force.”

Laguna del Maule looks nothing like a classic, cone-shaped volcano, since the high-intensity erosion caused by heavy rain and snow has carried most of the evidence to the nearby Pacific Ocean. But the overpowering reason for the absence of “typical volcano cones” is the nature of the molten rock underground. It’s called rhyolite, and it’s the most explosive type of magma on the planet.

The eruption of a rhyolite volcano is too quick and violent to build up a cone. Instead, this viscous, water-rich magma often explodes into vast quantities of ash that can form deposits hundreds of yards deep, followed by a slower flow of glassy magma that can be tens of yards tall and measure more than a mile in length.

The next eruption could be in the size range of Mount St. Helens — or it could be vastly bigger, Singer says. “We know that over the past million years or so, several eruptions at Laguna del Maule or nearby volcanoes have been more than 100 times larger than Mount St. Helens,” he says. “Those are rare, but they are possible.” Such a mega-eruption could change the weather, disrupt the ecosystem and damage the economy.

Trying to anticipate what Laguna del Maule holds in store, Singer is heading a new $3 million, five-year effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation to document its behavior before an eruption. With colleagues from Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, and Cornell and Georgia Tech universities, he is masterminding an effort to build a scientific model of the underground forces that could lead to eruption. “This model should capture how this system has evolved in the crust at all scales, from the microscopic to basinwide, over the last 100,000 years,” Singer says. “It’s like a movie from the past to the present and into the future.”

Over the next five years, Singer says he and 30 colleagues will “throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem — geology, geochemistry, geochronology and geophysics — to help measure, and then model, what’s going on.”

One key source of information on volcanoes is seismic waves. Ground shaking triggered by the movement of magma can signal an impending eruption. Team member Clifford Thurber, a seismologist and professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, wants to use distant earthquakes to locate the underground magma body.

As many as 50 seismometers will eventually be emplaced above and around the magma at Laguna del Maule, in the effort to create a 3-D image of Earth’s crust in the area.

By tracking multiple earthquakes over several years, Thurber and his colleagues want to pinpoint the size and location of the magma body — roughly estimated as an oval measuring five kilometers (3.1 miles) by 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Each seismometer will record the travel time of earthquake waves originating within a few thousand kilometers, Thurber explains. Since soft rock transmits sound less efficiently than hard rock, “we expect that waves that pass through the presumed magma body will be delayed,” Thurber says. “It’s very simple. It’s like a CT scan, except instead of density we are looking at seismic wave velocity.”

As Singer, who has been visiting Laguna del Maule since 1998, notes, “The rate of uplift — among the highest ever observed — has been sustained for seven years, and we have discovered a large, fluid-rich zone in the crust under the lake using electrical resistivity methods. Thus, there are not many possible explanations other than a big, active body of magma at a shallow depth.”

The expanding body of magma could freeze in place — or blow its top, he says. “One thing we know for sure is that the surface cannot continue rising indefinitely.”

The bend in the Appalachian mountain chain is finally explained

A dense, underground block of volcanic rock (shown in red) helped shape the well-known bend in the Appalachian mountain range. -  Graphic by Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.
A dense, underground block of volcanic rock (shown in red) helped shape the well-known bend in the Appalachian mountain range. – Graphic by Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.

The 1500 mile Appalachian mountain chain runs along a nearly straight line from Alabama to Newfoundland-except for a curious bend in Pennsylvania and New York State. Researchers from the College of New Jersey and the University of Rochester now know what caused that bend-a dense, underground block of rigid, volcanic rock forced the chain to shift eastward as it was forming millions of years ago.

According to Cindy Ebinger, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, scientists had previously known about the volcanic rock structure under the Appalachians. “What we didn’t understand was the size of the structure or its implications for mountain-building processes,” she said.

The findings have been published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

When the North American and African continental plates collided more than 300 million years ago, the North American plate began folding and thrusting upwards as it was pushed westward into the dense underground rock structure-in what is now the northeastern United States. The dense rock created a barricade, forcing the Appalachian mountain range to spring up with its characteristic bend.

The research team-which also included Margaret Benoit, an associate professor of physics at the College of New Jersey, and graduate student Melanie Crampton at the College of New Jersey-studied data collected by the Earthscope project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Earthscope makes use of 136 GPS receivers and an array of 400 portable seismometers deployed in the northeast United States to measure ground movement.

Benoit and Ebinger also made use of the North American Gravity Database, a compilation of open-source data from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The database, started two decades ago, contains measurements of the gravitational pull over the North American terrain. Most people assume that gravity has a constant value, but when gravity is experimentally measured, it changes from place to place due to variations in the density and thickness of Earth’s rock layers. Certain parts of the Earth are denser than others, causing the gravitational pull to be slightly greater in those places.

Data on the changes in gravitational pull and seismic velocity together allowed the researchers to determine the density of the underground structure and conclude that it is volcanic in origin, with dimensions of 450 kilometers by 100 kilometers. This information, along with data from the Earthscope project ultimately helped the researchers to model how the bend was formed.

Ebinger called the research project a “foundation study” that will improve scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s underlying structures. As an example, Ebinger said their findings could provide useful information in the debate over hydraulic fracturing-popularly known is hydrofracking-in New York State.

Hydrofracking is a mining technique used to extract natural gas from deep in the earth. It involves drilling horizontally into shale formations, then injecting the rock with sand, water, and a cocktail of chemicals to free the trapped gas for removal. The region just west of the Appalachian Basin-the Marcellus Shale formation-is rich in natural gas reserves and is being considered for development by drilling companies.

Scientists discover evidence of super-fast deep earthquake

As scientists learn more about earthquakes that rupture at fault zones near the planet’s surface-and the mechanisms that trigger them-an even more intriguing earthquake mystery lies deeper in the planet.

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have discovered the first evidence that deep earthquakes, those breaking at more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) below Earth’s surface, can rupture much faster than ordinary earthquakes. The finding gives seismologists new clues about the forces behind deep earthquakes as well as fast-breaking earthquakes that strike near the surface.

Seismologists have documented a handful of these events, in which an earthquake’s rupture travels faster than the shear waves of seismic energy that it radiates. These “supershear” earthquakes have rupture speeds of four kilometers per second (an astonishing 9,000 miles per hour) or more.

In a National Science Foundation-funded study reported in the June 11, 2014, issue of the journal Science, Scripps geophysicists Zhongwen Zhan and Peter Shearer of Scripps, along with their colleagues at Caltech, discovered the first deep supershear earthquake while examining the aftershocks of a magnitude 8.3 earthquake on May 24, 2013, in the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian mainland.

Details of a magnitude 6.7 aftershock of the event captured Zhan’s attention. Analyzing data from the IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) consortium, which coordinates a global network of seismological instruments, Zhan noted that most seismometers around the world yielded similar records, all suggesting an anomalously short duration for a magnitude 6.7 earthquake.

Data from one seismometer, however, stationed closest to the event in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, told a different story with intriguing details.

After closely analyzing the data, Zhan not only found that the aftershock ruptured extremely deeply at 640 kilometers (400 miles) below the earth’s surface, but its rupture velocity was extraordinary-about eight kilometers per second (five miles per second), nearly 50 percent faster than the shear wave velocity at that depth.

“For a 6.7 earthquake you would expect a duration of seven to eight seconds, but this one lasted just two seconds,” said Shearer, a geophysics professor in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps. “This is the first definitive example of supershear rupture for a deep earthquake since previously supershear ruptures have been documented only for shallow earthquakes.”

“This finding will help us understand why deep earthquakes happen,” said Zhan. “One quarter of earthquakes occur at large depths, and some of these can be pretty big, but we still don’t understand why they happen. So this earthquake provides a new observation for deep earthquakes and high-rupture speeds.”

Zhan also believes the new information will be useful in examining ultra-fast earthquakes and their potential for impacting fault zones near the earth’s surface. Although not of supershear caliber, California’s destructive 1994 Northridge earthquake had a comparable size and geometry to that of the 6.7 Sea of Okhotsk aftershock.

“If a shallow earthquake such as Northridge goes supershear, it could cause even more shaking and possibly more damage,” said Zhan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New evidence for oceans of water deep in the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-ever 3D image created of the structure beneath Sierra Negra volcano

This is a photo of the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island in the Galápagos Archipelago. -  Cynthia Ebinger, University of Rochester
This is a photo of the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island in the Galápagos Archipelago. – Cynthia Ebinger, University of Rochester

The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the most active volcanoes in the world, with more than 50 eruptions in the last 200 years. Yet until recently, scientists knew far more about the history of finches, tortoises, and iguanas than of the volcanoes on which these unusual fauna had evolved.

Now research out of the University of Rochester is providing a better picture of the subterranean plumbing system that feeds the Galápagos volcanoes, as well as a major difference with another Pacific Island chain-the Hawaiian Islands. The findings have been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.

“With a better understanding of what’s beneath the volcanoes, we’ll now be able to more accurately measure underground activity,” said Cynthia Ebinger, a professor of earth and environmental sciences. “That should help us better anticipate earthquakes and eruptions, and mitigate the hazards associated with them.”

Ebinger’s team, which included Mario Ruiz from the Instituto Geofisico Escuela Politecnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador, buried 15 seismometers around Sierra Negra, the largest and most active volcano in the Galápagos. The equipment was used to measure the velocity and direction of different sound waves generated by earthquakes as they traveled under Sierra Negra. Since the behavior of the waves varies according to the temperature and types of material they’re passing through, the data collected allowed the researchers to construct a 3D image of the plumbing system beneath the volcano, using a technique similar to a CAT-scan.

Five kilometers down is the beginning of a large magma chamber lying partially within old oceanic crust that had been buried by more than 8 km of eruptive rock layers. And the oceanic crust has what appears to be a thick underplating of rock formed when magma that was working its way toward the surface became trapped under the crust and cooled-very much like the processes that occur under the Hawaiian Islands.

The researchers found that the Galápagos had something else in common with the Hawaiian Islands. Their data suggest the presence of a large chamber filled with crystal-mush magma-cooled magma that includes crystallized minerals.

The Galápagos Islands formed from a hotspot of magma located in an oceanic plate-called Nazca-about 600 miles of Ecuador, in a process very similar to how the Hawaiian Islands were created. Magma rising from the hotspot eventually hardened into an island. Then, as the Nazca plate inched its way westward, new islands formed in the same manner, resulting in the present-day Galápagos Archipelago.

While there are several similarities between the two island chains, Ebinger uncovered a major difference. The older volcanos in the Hawaiian Islands are dormant, because they’ve moved away from the hotspot that provided the source of magma. In the Galápagos, the volcanoes are connected to the same plumbing system. By studying satellite views of the volcanoes, Ebinger and colleagues noticed that, as the magma would sink in one, it would rise in a different volcano-indicating that that some of the youngest volcanoes had magma connections, even if those connections were temporary.

“Not only do we have a better understanding of the physical properties of Sierra Negra,” said Ebinger, “we have increased out knowledge of island volcano systems, in general.”

The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the most active volcanoes in the world, with more than 50 eruptions in the last 200 years. Yet until recently, scientists knew far more about the history of finches, tortoises, and iguanas than of the volcanoes on which these unusual fauna had evolved.

Now research out of the University of Rochester is providing a better picture of the subterranean plumbing system that feeds the Galápagos volcanoes, as well as a major difference with another Pacific Island chain-the Hawaiian Islands.

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.

Atlas Mountains in Morocco are buoyed up by superhot rock, study finds

<IMG SRC="/Images/187660813.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="206" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a profile depicting the height and depth of the Atlas Mountains. The blue bars indicate the boundary between the crust and the superhot rock below, about 15 km shallower than predicted by previous models. – Figure 2 from the Geology paper, courtesy of Meghan Miller and Thorsten Becker”>
This is a profile depicting the height and depth of the Atlas Mountains. The blue bars indicate the boundary between the crust and the superhot rock below, about 15 km shallower than predicted by previous models. – Figure 2 from the Geology paper, courtesy of Meghan Miller and Thorsten Becker

The Atlas Mountains defy the standard model for mountain structure in which high topography must have deep roots for support, according to a new study from Earth scientists at USC.

In a new model, the researchers show that the mountains are floating on a layer of hot molten rock that flows beneath the region’s lithosphere, perhaps all the way from the volcanic Canary Islands, just offshore northwestern Africa.

“Our findings confirm that mountain structures and their formation are far more complex than previously believed,” said lead author Meghan Miller, assistant professor of Earth sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The study, coauthored by Thorsten Becker, professor of Earth sciences at USC Dornsife, was published by Geology on Jan. 1, 2014 and highlighted by Nature Geoscience.

A well-established model for the Earth’s lithosphere suggests that the height of the Earth’s crust must be supported by a commensurate depth, much like how a tall iceberg doesn’t simply float on the surface of the water but instead rests on a large submerged mass of ice. This property is known as “istostacy.”

“The Atlas Mountains are at present out of balance, likely due to a confluence of existing lithospheric strength anomalies and deep mantle dynamics,” Becker said.

Miller and Becker used seismometers to measure the thickness of the lithosphere – that is, the Earth’s rigid outermost layer – beneath the Altas Mountains in Morocco. By analyzing 67 distant seismic events with 15 seismometers, the team was able to use the Earth’s vibrations to “see” into the deep subsurface.

They found that the crust beneath the Atlas Mountains, which rise to an elevation of more than 4,000 meters, reaches a depth of only about 35 km – about 15 km shy of what the traditional model predicts.

“This study shows that deformation can be observed through the entire lithosphere and contributes to mountain building even far away from plate boundaries” Miller said.

Miller’s lab is currently conducting further research into the timing and effects of the mountain building on other geological processes.

Study faults a ‘runaway’ mechanism in intermediate-depth earthquakes

Nearly 25 percent of earthquakes occur more than 50 kilometers below the Earth’s surface, when one tectonic plate slides below another, in a region called the lithosphere. Scientists have thought that these rumblings from the deep arise from a different process than shallower, more destructive quakes. But limited seismic data, and difficulty in reproducing these quakes in the laboratory, have combined to prevent researchers from pinpointing the cause of intermediate and deep earthquakes.

Now a team from MIT and Stanford University has identified a mechanism that helps these deeper quakes spread. By analyzing seismic data from a region in Colombia with a high concentration of intermediate-depth earthquakes, the researchers identified a “runaway process” in which the sliding of rocks at great depths causes surrounding temperatures to spike. This influx of heat, in turn, encourages more sliding – a feedback mechanism that propagates through the lithosphere, generating an earthquake.

German Prieto, an assistant professor of geophysics in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says that once thermal runaway starts, the surrounding rocks can heat up and slide more easily, raising the temperature very quickly.

“What we predict is for medium-sized earthquakes, with magnitude 4 to 5, temperature can rise up to 1,000 degrees Centigrade, or about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, in a matter of one second,” Prieto says. “It’s a huge amount. You’re basically allowing rupture to run away because of this large temperature increase.”

Prieto says that understanding deeper earthquakes may help local communities anticipate how much shaking they may experience, given the seismic history of their regions.

He and his colleagues have published their results in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Water versus heat: two competing theories


The majority of Earth’s seismic activity occurs at relatively shallow depths, and the mechanics of such quakes is well understood: Over time, abutting plates in the crust build up tension as they shift against each other. This tension ultimately reaches a breaking point, creating a sudden rupture that splinters through the crust.

However, scientists have determined that this process is not feasible for quakes that occur far below the surface. Essentially, higher temperatures and pressures at these depths would make rocks behave differently than they would closer to the surface, gliding past rather than breaking against each other.

By way of explanation, Prieto draws an analogy to glass: If you try to bend a glass tube at room temperature, with enough force, it will eventually shatter. But with heating, the tube will become much more malleable, and bend without breaking.

So how do deeper earthquakes occur? Scientists have proposed two theories: The first, called dehydration embrittlement, is based on the small amounts of water in rocks’ mineral composition. At high pressure and heat, rocks release water, which lubricates surrounding faults, creating fractures that ultimately set off a quake.

The second theory is thermal runaway: Increasing temperatures weaken rocks, promoting slippage that spreads through the lithosphere, further increasing temperatures and causing more rocks to slip, resulting in an earthquake.

Probing the nest


Prieto and his colleagues found new evidence in support of the second theory by analyzing seismic data from a region of Colombia that experiences large numbers of intermediate-depth earthquakes – quakes whose epicenters are 50 to 300 kilometers below the surface. This region, known as the Bucaramanga Nest, hosts the highest concentration of intermediate-depth quakes in the world: Since 1993, more than 80,000 earthquakes have been recorded in the area, making it, in Prieto’s view, an “ideal natural laboratory” for studying deeper quakes.

The researchers analyzed seismic waves recorded by nearby surface seismometers and calculated two parameters: stress drop, or the total amount of energy released by an earthquake, and radiated seismic energy, or the amount of that energy that makes it to the surface as seismic waves – energy that is manifested in the shaking of the ground.

The stronger a quake is, the more energy, or heat, it generates. Interestingly, the MIT group found that only 2 percent of a deeper quake’s total energy is felt at the surface. Prieto reasoned that much of the other 98 percent may be released locally as heat, creating an enormous temperature increase that pushes a quake to spread.

Prieto says the study provides strong evidence for thermal runaway as the likely mechanism for intermediate-depth earthquakes. Such knowledge, he says, may be useful for communities around Bucaramanga in predicting the severity of future quakes.

“Usually people in Bucaramanga feel a magnitude 4 quake every month or so, and every year they experience a larger one that can shake significantly,” Prieto says. “If you’re in a region where you have intermediate-depth quakes and you know the size of the region, you can make a prediction of the type of magnitudes of quakes that you can have, and what kind of shaking you would expect.”

Prieto, a native Colombian, plans to deploy seismic stations above the Bucaramanga Nest to better understand the activity of deeper quakes.

Runaway process drives intermediate-depth earthquakes, scientists find

Stanford scientists may have solved the mystery of what drives a type of earthquake that occurs deep within the Earth and accounts for one in four quakes worldwide.

Known as intermediate-depth earthquakes, these temblors originate farther down inside the Earth than shallow earthquakes, which take place in the uppermost layer of the Earth’s surface, called the crust. The kinds of quakes that afflict California and most other places in the world are shallow earthquakes.

“Intermediate-depth earthquakes occur at depths of about 30 miles down to about 190 miles,” said Greg Beroza, a professor of geophysics at Stanford and a coauthor of a new study that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Unlike shallow earthquakes, the cause of intermediate quakes is not well-understood. Part of the problem is that the mechanism for shallow earthquakes should not physically work for quakes at greater depths.

“Shallow earthquakes occur when stress building up at faults overcomes friction, resulting in sudden slip and energy release,” Beroza said. “That mechanism shouldn’t work at the higher pressures and temperatures at which intermediate depth earthquakes occur.”

A better understanding of intermediate-depth quakes could help scientists forecast where they will occur and the risk they pose to buildings and people.

“They represent 25 percent of the catalog of earthquakes, and some of them are large enough to produce damage and deaths,” said study first author Germán Prieto, an assistant professor of geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A tale of two theories


There are two main hypotheses for what may be driving intermediate depth earthquakes. According to one idea, water is squeezed out of rock pores at extreme depths and the liquid acts like a lubricant to facilitate fault sliding. This fits with the finding that intermediate quakes generally occur at sites where one tectonic plate is sliding, or subducting, beneath another.

“Typically, subduction involves oceanic plates whose rocks contain lots of water,” Beroza said.

A competing idea is that as rocks at extreme depths deform, they generate heat due to friction. The heated rocks become more malleable, or plastic, and as a result slide more easily against each other. This can create a positive feedback loop that further weakens the rock and increases the likelihood of fault slippage.

“It’s a runaway process in which the increasing heat generates more slip, and more slip generates more heat and so on,” Prieto said.

To distinguish between the two possible mechanisms, the scientists studied a site near the city of Bucaramanga in Colombia that boasts the highest concentration of intermediate quakes in the world. About 18 intermediate depth temblors rattle Bucaramanga every day. Most are magnitude 2 to 3, weak quakes that are detectable only by sensitive instruments.

But about once a month one occurs that is magnitude 5 or greater – strong enough to be felt by the city’s residents. Moreover, past studies have revealed that most of the quakes appear to be concentrated at a site located about 90 miles beneath the Earth’s surface that scientists call the Bucaramanga Nest.

A natural laboratory


This type of clustering is highly unusual and makes the Bucaramanga Nest a “natural laboratory” for studying intermediate depth earthquakes. Comparison studies of intermediate quakes from different parts of the world are difficult because the makeup of the Earth’s crust and mantle can vary widely by location.

In the Bucaramanga Nest, however, the intermediate quakes are so closely packed together that for the purposes of scientific studies and computer models, it’s as if they all occurred at the same spot. This vastly simplifies calculations, Beroza said.

“When comparing a magnitude 2 and a magnitude 5 intermediate depth earthquake that are far apart, you have to model everything, including differences in the makeup of the Earth’s surface,” he said. “But if they’re close together, you can assume that the seismic waves of both quakes suffered the same distortions as they traveled toward the Earth’s surface.”

By studying seismic waves picked up by digital seismometers installed on the Earth’s surface above the Bucaramanga Nest, the scientists were able to measure two key parameters of the intermediate quakes happening deep underground.

One, called the stress drop, allowed the team to estimate the total amount of energy released during the fault slips that caused the earthquakes. The other was radiated energy, which is a measure of how much of the energy generated by the fault slip is actually converted to seismic waves that propagate through the Earth to shake the surface.

Two things immediately stood out to the researchers. One was that the stress drop for intermediate quakes increased along with their magnitudes. That is, larger intermediate quakes released proportionally more total energy than smaller ones. Second, the amount of radiated energy released by intermediate earthquakes accounted for only a tiny portion of the total energy as calculated by the stress drop.

“For these intermediate-depth earthquakes in Colombia, the amount of energy converted to seismic waves is only a small fraction of the total energy,” Beroza said.

The implication is that intermediate earthquakes are expending most of their energy locally, likely in the form of heat.

“This is compelling evidence for a thermal runaway failure mechanism for intermediate earthquakes, in which a slipping fault generates heat. That allows for more slip and even more heat, and a positive feedback loop is created,” said study coauthor Sarah Barrett, a Stanford graduate student in Beroza’s research group.