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.

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.

Offshore islands amplify, rather than dissipate, a tsunami’s power

This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami's height. -  Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC
This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami’s height. – Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC

A long-held belief that offshore islands protect the mainland from tsunamis turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth, according to a new study.

Common wisdom — from Southern California to the South Pacific — for coastal residents and scientists alike has long been that offshore islands would create a buffer that blocked the power of a tsunami. In fact, computer modeling of tsunamis striking a wide variety of different offshore island geometries yielded no situation in which the mainland behind them fared better.

Instead, islands focused the energy of the tsunami, increasing flooding on the mainland by up to 70 percent.

“This is where many fishing villages are located, behind offshore islands, in the belief that they will be protected from wind waves. Even Southern California residents believe that the Channel Islands and Catalina will protect them,” said Costas Synolakis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, a member of the multinational team that conducted the research.

The research was inspired by a field survey of the impact of the 2010 tsunami on the Mentawai Islands off of Sumatra. The survey data showed that villages located in the shadow of small offshore islets suffered some of the strongest tsunami impacts, worse than villages located along open coasts.

Subsequent computer modeling by Jose Borrero, adjunct assistant research professor at the USC Viterbi Tsunami Research Center, showed that the offshore islands had actually contributed to — not diminished — the tsunami’s impact.

Synolakis then teamed up with researchers Emile Contal and Nicolas Vayatis of Ecoles Normales de Cachan in Paris; and Themistoklis S. Stefanakis and Frederic Dias, who both have joint appointments at Ecoles Normales de Cachan and University College Dublin to determine whether that was a one-of-a-kind situation, or the norm.

Their study, of which Dias was the corresponding author, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A on Nov. 5.

The team designed a computer model that took into consideration various island slopes, beach slopes, water depths, distance between the island and the beach, and wavelength of the incoming tsunami.

“Even a casual analysis of these factors would have required hundreds of thousands of computations, each of which could take up to half a day,” Synolakis said. “So instead, we used machine learning.”

Machine learning is a mathematical process that makes it easier to identify the maximum values of interdependent processes with multiple parameters by allowing the computer to “learn” from previous results.

The computer starts to understand how various tweaks to the parameters affect the overall outcome and finds the best answer quicker. As such, results that traditionally could have taken hundreds of thousands of models to uncover were found with 200 models.

“This work is applicable to some of our tsunami study sites in New Zealand,” said Borrero, who is producing tsunami hazard maps for regions of the New Zealand coast. “The northeast coast of New Zealand has many small islands offshore, similar to those in Indonesia, and our modeling suggests that this results in areas of enhanced tsunami heights.”

“Substantial public education efforts are needed to help better explain to coastal residents tsunami hazards, and whenever they need to be extra cautious and responsive with evacuations during actual emergencies,” Synolakis said.

###

The research was funded by EDSP of ENS-Cachan; the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Dublin; the ERC; SFI; University College Dublin; and the EU FP7 program ASTARTE. The study can be found online at http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/470/2172/20140575.

Offshore islands amplify, rather than dissipate, a tsunami’s power

This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami's height. -  Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC
This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami’s height. – Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC

A long-held belief that offshore islands protect the mainland from tsunamis turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth, according to a new study.

Common wisdom — from Southern California to the South Pacific — for coastal residents and scientists alike has long been that offshore islands would create a buffer that blocked the power of a tsunami. In fact, computer modeling of tsunamis striking a wide variety of different offshore island geometries yielded no situation in which the mainland behind them fared better.

Instead, islands focused the energy of the tsunami, increasing flooding on the mainland by up to 70 percent.

“This is where many fishing villages are located, behind offshore islands, in the belief that they will be protected from wind waves. Even Southern California residents believe that the Channel Islands and Catalina will protect them,” said Costas Synolakis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, a member of the multinational team that conducted the research.

The research was inspired by a field survey of the impact of the 2010 tsunami on the Mentawai Islands off of Sumatra. The survey data showed that villages located in the shadow of small offshore islets suffered some of the strongest tsunami impacts, worse than villages located along open coasts.

Subsequent computer modeling by Jose Borrero, adjunct assistant research professor at the USC Viterbi Tsunami Research Center, showed that the offshore islands had actually contributed to — not diminished — the tsunami’s impact.

Synolakis then teamed up with researchers Emile Contal and Nicolas Vayatis of Ecoles Normales de Cachan in Paris; and Themistoklis S. Stefanakis and Frederic Dias, who both have joint appointments at Ecoles Normales de Cachan and University College Dublin to determine whether that was a one-of-a-kind situation, or the norm.

Their study, of which Dias was the corresponding author, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A on Nov. 5.

The team designed a computer model that took into consideration various island slopes, beach slopes, water depths, distance between the island and the beach, and wavelength of the incoming tsunami.

“Even a casual analysis of these factors would have required hundreds of thousands of computations, each of which could take up to half a day,” Synolakis said. “So instead, we used machine learning.”

Machine learning is a mathematical process that makes it easier to identify the maximum values of interdependent processes with multiple parameters by allowing the computer to “learn” from previous results.

The computer starts to understand how various tweaks to the parameters affect the overall outcome and finds the best answer quicker. As such, results that traditionally could have taken hundreds of thousands of models to uncover were found with 200 models.

“This work is applicable to some of our tsunami study sites in New Zealand,” said Borrero, who is producing tsunami hazard maps for regions of the New Zealand coast. “The northeast coast of New Zealand has many small islands offshore, similar to those in Indonesia, and our modeling suggests that this results in areas of enhanced tsunami heights.”

“Substantial public education efforts are needed to help better explain to coastal residents tsunami hazards, and whenever they need to be extra cautious and responsive with evacuations during actual emergencies,” Synolakis said.

###

The research was funded by EDSP of ENS-Cachan; the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Dublin; the ERC; SFI; University College Dublin; and the EU FP7 program ASTARTE. The study can be found online at http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/470/2172/20140575.

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.

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.

Great earthquakes, water under pressure, high risk

The largest earthquakes occur where oceanic plates move beneath continents. Obviously, water trapped in the boundary between both plates has a dominant influence on the earthquake rupture process. Analyzing the great Chile earthquake of February, 27th, 2010, a group of scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and from Liverpool University found that the water pressure in the pores of the rocks making up the plate boundary zone takes the key role (Nature Geoscience, 28.03.2014).

The stress build-up before an earthquake and the magnitude of subsequent seismic energy release are substantially controlled by the mechanical coupling between both plates. Studies of recent great earthquakes have revealed that the lateral extent of the rupture and magnitude of these events are fundamentally controlled by the stress build-up along the subduction plate interface. Stress build-up and its lateral distribution in turn are dependent on the distribution and pressure of fluids along the plate interface.

“We combined observations of several geoscience disciplines – geodesy, seismology, petrology. In addition, we have a unique opportunity in Chile that our natural observatory there provides us with long time series of data,” says Onno Oncken, director of the GFZ-Department “Geodynamics and Geomaterials”. Earth observation (Geodesy) using GPS technology and radar interferometry today allows a detailed mapping of mechanical coupling at the plate boundary from the Earth’s surface. A complementary image of the rock properties at depth is provided by seismology. Earthquake data yield a high resolution three-dimensional image of seismic wave speeds and their variations in the plate interface region. Data on fluid pressure and rock properties, on the other hand, are available from laboratory measurements. All these data had been acquired shortly before the great Chile earthquake of February 2010 struck with a magnitude of 8.8.

“For the first time, our results allow us to map the spatial distribution of the fluid pressure with unprecedented resolution showing how they control mechanical locking and subsequent seismic energy release”, explains Professor Oncken. “Zones of changed seismic wave speeds reflect zones of reduced mechanical coupling between plates”. This state supports creep along the plate interface. In turn, high mechanical locking is promoted in lower pore fluid pressure domains. It is these locked domains that subsequently ruptured during the Chile earthquake releasing most seismic energy causing destruction at the Earth’s surface and tsunami waves. The authors suggest the spatial pore fluid pressure variations to be related to oceanic water accumulated in an altered oceanic fracture zone within the Pacific oceanic plate. Upon subduction of the latter beneath South America the fluid volumes are released and trapped along the overlying plate interface, leading to increasing pore fluid pressures. This study provides a powerful tool to monitor the physical state of a plate interface and to forecast its seismic potential.

Great earthquakes, water under pressure, high risk

The largest earthquakes occur where oceanic plates move beneath continents. Obviously, water trapped in the boundary between both plates has a dominant influence on the earthquake rupture process. Analyzing the great Chile earthquake of February, 27th, 2010, a group of scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and from Liverpool University found that the water pressure in the pores of the rocks making up the plate boundary zone takes the key role (Nature Geoscience, 28.03.2014).

The stress build-up before an earthquake and the magnitude of subsequent seismic energy release are substantially controlled by the mechanical coupling between both plates. Studies of recent great earthquakes have revealed that the lateral extent of the rupture and magnitude of these events are fundamentally controlled by the stress build-up along the subduction plate interface. Stress build-up and its lateral distribution in turn are dependent on the distribution and pressure of fluids along the plate interface.

“We combined observations of several geoscience disciplines – geodesy, seismology, petrology. In addition, we have a unique opportunity in Chile that our natural observatory there provides us with long time series of data,” says Onno Oncken, director of the GFZ-Department “Geodynamics and Geomaterials”. Earth observation (Geodesy) using GPS technology and radar interferometry today allows a detailed mapping of mechanical coupling at the plate boundary from the Earth’s surface. A complementary image of the rock properties at depth is provided by seismology. Earthquake data yield a high resolution three-dimensional image of seismic wave speeds and their variations in the plate interface region. Data on fluid pressure and rock properties, on the other hand, are available from laboratory measurements. All these data had been acquired shortly before the great Chile earthquake of February 2010 struck with a magnitude of 8.8.

“For the first time, our results allow us to map the spatial distribution of the fluid pressure with unprecedented resolution showing how they control mechanical locking and subsequent seismic energy release”, explains Professor Oncken. “Zones of changed seismic wave speeds reflect zones of reduced mechanical coupling between plates”. This state supports creep along the plate interface. In turn, high mechanical locking is promoted in lower pore fluid pressure domains. It is these locked domains that subsequently ruptured during the Chile earthquake releasing most seismic energy causing destruction at the Earth’s surface and tsunami waves. The authors suggest the spatial pore fluid pressure variations to be related to oceanic water accumulated in an altered oceanic fracture zone within the Pacific oceanic plate. Upon subduction of the latter beneath South America the fluid volumes are released and trapped along the overlying plate interface, leading to increasing pore fluid pressures. This study provides a powerful tool to monitor the physical state of a plate interface and to forecast its seismic potential.

Shale could be long-term home for problematic nuclear waste

Shale, the source of the United States’ current natural gas boom, could help solve another energy problem: what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. The unique properties of the sedimentary rock and related clay-rich rocks make it ideal for storing the potentially dangerous spent fuel for millennia, according to a geologist studying possible storage sites who made a presentation here today.

The talk was one of more than 10,000 presentations at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, taking place here through Thursday.

About 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel currently sit in temporary above-ground storage facilities, said Chris Neuzil, Ph.D., who led the research, and it will remain dangerous for tens or hundreds of thousands of years or longer.

“Surface storage for that length of time requires maintenance and security,” he said. “Hoping for stable societies that can continue to provide those things for millennia is not a good idea.” He also pointed out that natural disasters can threaten surface facilities, as in 2011 when a tsunami knocked cooling pumps in storage pools offline at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

Since the U.S. government abandoned plans to develop a long-term nuclear-waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 2009, Neuzil said finding new long-term storage sites must be a priority. It is crucial because nuclear fuel continues to produce heat and harmful radiation after its useful lifetime. In a nuclear power plant, the heat generated by uranium, plutonium and other radioactive elements as they decay is used to make steam and generate electricity by spinning turbines. In temporary pool storage, water absorbs heat and radiation. After spent fuel has been cooled in a pool for several years, it can be moved to dry storage in a sealed metal cask, where steel and concrete block radiation. This also is a temporary measure.

But shale deep under the Earth’s surface could be a solution. France, Switzerland and Belgium already have plans to use shale repositories to store nuclear waste long-term. Neuzil proposes that the U.S. also explore the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel hundreds of yards underground in layers of shale and other clay-rich rock. He is with the U.S. Geological Survey and is currently investigating a site in Ontario with the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Neuzil explained that these rock formations may be uniquely suited for nuclear waste storage because they are nearly impermeable – barely any water flows through them. Experts consider water contamination by nuclear waste one of the biggest risks of long-term storage. Unlike shale that one might see where a road cuts into a hillside, the rocks where Neuzil is looking are much more watertight. “Years ago, I probably would have told you shales below the surface were also fractured,” he said. “But we’re seeing that that’s not necessarily true.” Experiments show that water moves extremely slowly through these rocks, if at all.

Various circumstances have conspired to create unusual pressure systems in these formations that result from minimal water flow. In one well-known example, retreating glaciers in Wellenberg, Switzerland, squeezed the water from subsurface shale. When they retreated, the shale sprung back to its original shape faster than water could seep back in, creating a low-pressure pocket. That means that groundwater now only flows extremely slowly into the formation rather than through it. Similar examples are also found in North America, Neuzil said.

Neuzil added that future glaciation probably doesn’t pose a serious threat to storage sites, as most of the shale formations he’s looking at have gone through several glaciations unchanged. “Damage to waste containers, which will be surrounded by a filler material, is also not seen as a concern,” he said.

He noted that one critical criterion for a good site must be a lack of oil or natural gas that could attract future interest.

Shale could be long-term home for problematic nuclear waste

Shale, the source of the United States’ current natural gas boom, could help solve another energy problem: what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. The unique properties of the sedimentary rock and related clay-rich rocks make it ideal for storing the potentially dangerous spent fuel for millennia, according to a geologist studying possible storage sites who made a presentation here today.

The talk was one of more than 10,000 presentations at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, taking place here through Thursday.

About 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel currently sit in temporary above-ground storage facilities, said Chris Neuzil, Ph.D., who led the research, and it will remain dangerous for tens or hundreds of thousands of years or longer.

“Surface storage for that length of time requires maintenance and security,” he said. “Hoping for stable societies that can continue to provide those things for millennia is not a good idea.” He also pointed out that natural disasters can threaten surface facilities, as in 2011 when a tsunami knocked cooling pumps in storage pools offline at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

Since the U.S. government abandoned plans to develop a long-term nuclear-waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 2009, Neuzil said finding new long-term storage sites must be a priority. It is crucial because nuclear fuel continues to produce heat and harmful radiation after its useful lifetime. In a nuclear power plant, the heat generated by uranium, plutonium and other radioactive elements as they decay is used to make steam and generate electricity by spinning turbines. In temporary pool storage, water absorbs heat and radiation. After spent fuel has been cooled in a pool for several years, it can be moved to dry storage in a sealed metal cask, where steel and concrete block radiation. This also is a temporary measure.

But shale deep under the Earth’s surface could be a solution. France, Switzerland and Belgium already have plans to use shale repositories to store nuclear waste long-term. Neuzil proposes that the U.S. also explore the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel hundreds of yards underground in layers of shale and other clay-rich rock. He is with the U.S. Geological Survey and is currently investigating a site in Ontario with the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Neuzil explained that these rock formations may be uniquely suited for nuclear waste storage because they are nearly impermeable – barely any water flows through them. Experts consider water contamination by nuclear waste one of the biggest risks of long-term storage. Unlike shale that one might see where a road cuts into a hillside, the rocks where Neuzil is looking are much more watertight. “Years ago, I probably would have told you shales below the surface were also fractured,” he said. “But we’re seeing that that’s not necessarily true.” Experiments show that water moves extremely slowly through these rocks, if at all.

Various circumstances have conspired to create unusual pressure systems in these formations that result from minimal water flow. In one well-known example, retreating glaciers in Wellenberg, Switzerland, squeezed the water from subsurface shale. When they retreated, the shale sprung back to its original shape faster than water could seep back in, creating a low-pressure pocket. That means that groundwater now only flows extremely slowly into the formation rather than through it. Similar examples are also found in North America, Neuzil said.

Neuzil added that future glaciation probably doesn’t pose a serious threat to storage sites, as most of the shale formations he’s looking at have gone through several glaciations unchanged. “Damage to waste containers, which will be surrounded by a filler material, is also not seen as a concern,” he said.

He noted that one critical criterion for a good site must be a lack of oil or natural gas that could attract future interest.