Subtle shifts in the Earth could forecast earthquakes, tsunamis

University of South Florida graduate student Jacob Richardson stands beside a completed installation.  The large white disc is the dual frequency antenna.  A portable solar panel that powers the system is visible in the foreground. -  Photo by Denis Voytenko
University of South Florida graduate student Jacob Richardson stands beside a completed installation. The large white disc is the dual frequency antenna. A portable solar panel that powers the system is visible in the foreground. – Photo by Denis Voytenko

Earthquakes and tsunamis can be giant disasters no one sees coming, but now an international team of scientists led by a University of South Florida professor have found that subtle shifts in the earth’s offshore plates can be a harbinger of the size of the disaster.

In a new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, USF geologist Tim Dixon and the team report that a geological phenomenon called “slow slip events” identified just 15 years ago is a useful tool in identifying the precursors to major earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. The scientists used high precision GPS to measure the slight shifts on a fault line in Costa Rica, and say better monitoring of these small events can lead to better understanding of maximum earthquake size and tsunami risk.

“Giant earthquakes and tsunamis in the last decade – Sumatra in 2004 and Japan in 2011 – are a reminder that our ability to forecast these destructive events is painfully weak,” Dixon said.

Dixon was involved in the development of high precision GPS for geophysical applications, and has been making GPS measurements in Costa Rica since 1988, in collaboration with scientists at Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and Georgia Tech. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Slow slip events have some similarities to earthquakes (caused by motion on faults) but release their energy slowly, over weeks or months, and cannot be felt or even recorded by conventional seismographs, Dixon said. Their discovery in 2001 by Canadian scientist Herb Dragert at the Pacific Geoscience Center had to await the development of high precision GPS, which is capable of measuring subtle movements of the Earth.

The scientists studied the Sept. 5, 2012 earthquake on the Costa Rica subduction plate boundary, as well as motions of the Earth in the previous decade. High precision GPS recorded numerous slow slip events in the decade leading up to the 2012 earthquake. The scientists made their measurements from a peninsula overlying the shallow portion of a megathrust fault in northwest Costa Rica.

The 7.6-magnitude quake was one of the strongest earthquakes ever to hit the Central American nation and unleased more than 1,600 aftershocks. Marino Protti, one of the authors of the paper and a resident of Costa Rica, has spent more than two decades warning local populations of the likelihood of a major earthquake in their area and recommending enhanced building codes.

A tsunami warning was issued after the quake, but only a small tsunami occurred. The group’s finding shed some light on why: slow slip events in the offshore region in the decade leading up to the earthquake may have released much of the stress and strain that would normally occur on the offshore fault.

While the group’s findings suggest that slow slip events have limited value in knowing exactly when an earthquake and tsunami will strike, they suggest that these events provide critical hazard assessment information by delineating rupture area and the magnitude and tsunami potential of future earthquakes.

The scientists recommend monitoring slow slip events in order to provide accurate forecasts of earthquake magnitude and tsunami potential.


The authors on the paper are Dixon; his former graduate student Yan Jiang, now at the Pacific Geoscience Centre in British Columba, Canada; USF Assistant Professor of Geosciences Rocco Malservisi; Robert McCaffrey of Portland State University; USF doctoral candidate Nicholas Voss; and Protti and Victor Gonzalez of the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica, Universidad Nacional.

The University of South Florida is a high-impact, global research university dedicated to student success. USF is a Top 50 research university among both public and private institutions nationwide in total research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation. Serving nearly 48,000 students, the USF System has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and an annual economic impact of $4.4 billion. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference.

Magma pancakes beneath Lake Toba

The tremendous amounts of lava that are emitted during super-eruptions accumulate over millions of years prior to the event in the Earth’s crust. These reservoirs consist of magma that intrudes into the crust in the form of numerous horizontally oriented sheets resting on top of each other like a pile of pancakes.

A team of geoscientists from Novosibirsk, Paris and Potsdam presents these results in the current issue of Science (2014/10/31). The scientists investigate the question on where the tremendous amounts of material that are ejected to from huge calderas during super-eruptions actually originate. Here we are not dealing with large volcanic eruptions of the size of Pinatubo of Mount St. Helens, here we are talking about extreme events: The Toba-caldera in the Sumatra subduction zone in Indonesia originated from one of the largest volcanic eruption in recent Earth history, about 74,000 years ago. It emitted the enormous amount of 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material with a dramatic global impact on climate and environment. Hereby, the 80 km long Lake Toba was formed.

Geoscientists were interested in finding out: How can the gigantic amounts of eruptible material required to form such a super volcano accumulate in the Earth’s crust. Was this a singular event thousands of years ago or can it happen again?

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences successfully installed a seismometer network in the Toba area to investigate these questions and provided the data to all participating scientists via the GEOFON data archive. GFZ scientist, Christoph Sens-Schönfelder, a co-author of the study explains: “With a new seismological method we were able to investigate the internal structure of the magma reservoir beneath the Toba-caldera. We found that the middle crust below the Toba supervolcano is horizontally layered.” The answer thus lies in the structure of the magma reservoir. Here, below 7 kilometers the crust consists of many, mostly horizontal, magmatic intrusions still containing molten material.

New seismological technique

It was already suspected that the large volume of magma ejected during the supervolcanic eruption had slowly accumulated over the last few millions of years in the form of consequently emplaced intrusions. This could now be confirmed with the results of field measurements. The GFZ scientists used a novel seismological method for this purpose. Over a six-month period they recorded the ambient seismic noise, the natural vibrations which usually are regarded as disturbing signals. With a statistical approach they analyzed the data and discovered that the velocity of seismic waves beneath Toba depends on the direction in which the waves shear the Earth’s crust. Above 7 kilometers depth the deposits of the last eruption formed a zone of low velocities. Below this depth the seismic anisotropy is caused by horizontally layered intrusions that structure the reservoir like a pile of pancakes. This is reflected in the seismic data.


Not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of the world there are such supervoclcanoes, which erupt only every couple of hundred thousand years but then in gigantic eruptions. Because of their size those volcanoes do not build up mountains but manifest themselves with their huge carter formed during the eruption – the caldera. Other known supervolcanoes include the area of the Yellow-Stone-Park, volcanoes in the Andes, and the caldera of Lake-Taupo in New Zealand. The present study helps to better understand the processes that lead to such super-eruptions.

Early Earth less hellish than previously thought

Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. -  Tamara Carley
Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. – Tamara Carley

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

The study was conducted by a team of geologists directed by Calvin Miller, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, and published online this weekend by the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in a paper titled, “Iceland is not a magmatic analog for the Hadean: Evidence from the zircon record.”

From the early 20th century up through the 1980’s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life. Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones. These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form – possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: How similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: One argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today. A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals – and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” said Miller.

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18 million year history.

Working with Miller and doctoral student Abraham Padilla at Vanderbilt, Joe Wooden at Stanford University, Axel Schmitt and Rita Economos from UCLA, Ilya Bindeman at the University of Oregon and Brennan Jordan at the University of South Dakota, Carley analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” said Carley.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” said Miller. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

M 9.0+ possible for subduction zones along ‘Ring of Fire,’ suggests new study

The magnitude of the 2011 Tohoku quake (M 9.0) caught many seismologists by surprise, prompting some to revisit the question of calculating the maximum magnitude earthquake possible for a particular fault. New research offers an alternate view that uses the concept of probable maximum magnitude events over a given period, providing the magnitude and the recurrence rate of extreme events in subduction zones for that period. Most circum Pacific subduction zones can produce earthquakes of magnitude greater than 9.0, suggests the study.

The idea of identifying the maximum magnitude for a fault isn’t new, and its definition varies based on context. This study, published online by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), calculates the “probable maximum earthquake magnitude within a time period of interest,” estimating the probable magnitude of subduction zone earthquakes for various time periods, including 250, 500 and 10,000 years.

“Various professionals use the same terminology – maximum magnitude – to mean different things. The most interesting question for us was what was going to be the biggest magnitude earthquake over a given period of time?” said co-author Yufang Rong, a seismologist at the Center for Property Risk Solutions of FM Global, a commercial and industrial property insurer. “Can we know the exact, absolute maximum magnitude? The answer is no, however, we developed a simple methodology to estimate the probable largest magnitude within a specific time frame.”

The study’s results indicated most of the subduction zones can generate M 8.5 or greater over a 250-return period; M 8.8 or greater over 500 years; and M 9.0 or greater over 10,000 years.

“Just because a subduction zone hasn’t produced a magnitude 8.8 in 499 years, that doesn’t mean one will happen next year,” said Rong. “We are talking about probabilities.”

The instrumental and historical earthquake record is brief, complicating any attempt to confirm recurrence rates and estimate with confidence the maximum magnitude of an earthquake in a given period. The authors validated their methodology by comparing their findings to the seismic history of the Cascadia subduction zone, revealed through deposits of marine sediment along the Pacific Northwest coast. While some subduction zones have experienced large events during recent history, the Cascadia subduction zone has remained quiet. Turbidite and onshore paleoseismic studies have documented a rich seismic history, identifying 40 large events over the past 10,000 years.

“Magnitude limits of subduction zone earthquakes” is co-authored by Rong, David Jackson of UCLA, Harold Magistrale of FM Global, and Chris Goldfinger of Oregon State University. The paper will be published online Sept. 16 by BSSA as well as in its October print edition.

Mantle plumes crack continents

In some parts of the Earth, material rises upwards like a column from the boundary layer of the Earth’s core and the lower mantel to just below the Earth’s crust hundreds of kilometres above. Halted by the resistance of the hard crust and lithospheric mantle, the flow of material becomes wider, taking on a mushroom-like shape. Specialists call these magma columns “mantle plumes” or simply “plumes”.

Are mantel plumes responsible for the African rift system?

Geologists believe that plumes are not just responsible for creating volcanoes outside of tectonically active areas – they can also break up continents. The scientists offer the Danakil Depression (the lowlands in the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Djibouti triangle) as an example of this. This “triple junction” is extremely tectonically and volcanically active. Geologists believe that the so-called Afar plume is rising up below it and has created a rift system that forks into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Africa’s Great Rift Valley. However, the sheer length of time required, geologically speaking, for this process to take place, means that nobody is able to confirm or disprove with absolute certainty that the force of a plume causes continental breakup.

Simulations becoming more realistic

Evgueni Burov, a Professor at the University of Paris VI, and Taras Gerya, Professor of Geophysics at ETH Zurich, have now taken a step closer to solving this geological mystery with a new computer model. Their paper has recently been published in the journal Nature. The two researchers conducted numerical experiments to reproduce the Earth’s surface in high-resolution 3D.

These simulations show that the rising flow of material is strong enough to cause continental breakup if the tectonic plate is under (weak) tensile stress. “The force exerted by a plume on a plate is actually too weak to break it up,” says Gerya. In experiments using simple models, the researchers allowed the plumes to hit an unstressed plate, which did not cause it to break, but merely formed a round hump. However, when the geophysicists modelled the same process with a plate under weak tensile stress, it broke apart, forming a crevice and rift system like the ones found around the world.

“The process can be compared to a taut piece of plastic film. Weak, pointed force is enough to tear the film, but if the film is not pulled taut, it is extremely difficult to tear.” This mechanism has already been proposed in the past as a possible model for explaining continental breakup, but had never been outlined in plausible terms before now.

First high-resolution simulations

“We are the first to create such a high-resolution model which demonstrates how a plume interacts with a plate under tensile stress,” says Gerya. Fast and powerful computers and stable algorithms programmed by the scientists themselves were required for the simulations. The researchers benefited from technical advances made and experience accumulated by the ETH professor in this field over the past ten years.

In the model, the deformations are created quickly from a geological point of view. Rift systems several kilometres deep and more than a thousand kilometres long can form after “just” two million years. The processes are therefore up to ten times faster than tectonic processes such as subduction and 50 times faster than the Alpine orogeny, for example.

Disputed idea

The idea of mantel plumes is widely disputed, with some researchers denying that they even exist. “I think it is much more likely that they do exist,” says Gerya. As is often the case in geology, especially when researching the Earth’s interior, such processes and phenomena like the existence of plumes cannot be observed directly. Furthermore, the periods over which geological processes take place are far too long for humans to experience first-hand. “So far, we have only been able to observe the effects that plumes have on the Earth’s surface and on the propagation of seismic waves in the Earth’s interior.”

The scientists are therefore reliant on good, realistic models that show the processes in a geological time lapse. How realistic the calculated simulations are depends on the parameters used. The plume-plate interaction model incorporated physical laws, the characteristics of materials in the Earth’s crust and mantle, and temperature and pressure conditions. “We know the rules, but humans generally lack the intuition to identify how they interact on geological timescales.”

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.

Study of Chilean quake shows potential for future earthquake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New view of Rainier’s volcanic plumbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Rainier: Hazardous Backdrop to Metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma

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

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

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

Subduction Made Simple – and a Peek beneath a Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studies show movements of continents speeding up after slow ‘middle age’

Two studies show that the movement rate of plates carrying the Earth’s crust may not be constant over time. This could provide a new explanation for the patterns observed in the speed of evolution and has implications for the interpretation of climate models. The work is presented today at Goldschmidt 2014, the premier geochemistry conference taking place in Sacramento, California, USA.

The Earth’s continental crust can be thought of as an archive of Earth’s history, containing information on rock formation, the atmosphere and the fossil record. However, it is not clear when and how regularly crust formed since the beginning of Earth history, 4.5 billion years ago.

Researchers led by Professor Peter Cawood, from the University of St. Andrews, UK, examined several measures of continental movement and geologic processes from a number of previous studies. They found that, from 1.7 to 0.75 billion years ago (termed Earth’s middle age), Earth appears to have been very stable in terms of its environment, with little in the way of crust building activity, no major fluctuations in atmospheric composition and few major developments seen in the fossil record. This contrasts markedly with the time periods either side of this, which contained major ice ages and changes in oxygen levels. Earth’s middle age also coincides with the formation of a supercontinent called Rodinia, which appears to have been stable throughout this time.

Professor Cawood suggests this stability may have been due to the gradual cooling of the earth’s crust over time. “Before 1.7 billion years ago, the Earth’s crust would have been substantially hotter, meaning that continental plate movement may have been governed by different rules to those that operate today,” said Professor Cawood. “0.75 billion years ago, the crust reached a point where it had cooled sufficiently to allow modern day plate tectonics to start working, in particular allowing subduction zones to form (where one plate of the crust moves under another). This increase in activity could have kick-started a myriad of changes including the break-up of Rodinia and changes to levels of key elements in the atmosphere and seas, which in turn may have induced evolutionary changes in the life forms present.”

This view is backed up by work from Professor Kent Condie from New Mexico Tech, USA, which suggests the movement rate of the Earth’s crust is not constant but may be speeding up over time. Professor Condie examined how supercontinents assemble and break up. “Our results challenge the view that the rate of plate movement is stable over time,” said Professor Condie. “The interpretation of data from many other disciplines such as stable isotope geochemistry, palaeontology and paleoclimatology in part rely on the assumption that the movement rate of the Earth’s crust is constant.”

Results from these fields may now need to be re-examined in light of Condie’s findings. “We now urgently need to collect further data on critical time periods to understand more about the constraints on plate speeds and the frequency of collision between continental blocks,” concluded Professor Condie.

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.