Science & Technology

Solving a Tectonic Puzzle: Explaining “Silent Earthquakes” Along New Zealand’s North Island

An electromagnetic sensor on its technique to the ocean flooring off New Zealand to gather knowledge. Credit score: Samer Naif / Lamont-Doherty Electromagnetic Geophysics Lab

The Hikurangi Margin, positioned off the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, is the place the Pacific tectonic plate dives beneath the Australian tectonic plate, in what scientists name a subduction zone. This interface of tectonic plates is partly liable for the greater than 15,000 earthquakes the area experiences annually. Most are too small to be seen, however between 150 and 200 are giant sufficient to be felt. Geological proof suggests that giant earthquakes occurred within the southern a part of the margin earlier than human record-keeping started.

Geophysicists, geologists, and geochemists from all through the world have been working collectively to grasp why this plate boundary behaves because it does, producing each imperceptible silent earthquakes, but in addition doubtlessly main ones. A examine revealed right now (July 7, 2021) within the journal Nature presents new perspective and doable solutions.

Lead writer Christine Chesley is a graduate pupil at Columbia College’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Credit score: Kerry Key

Scientists knew that the ocean flooring on the northern a part of the island, the place the plates slide slowly collectively, generates the small, slow-moving earthquakes referred to as gradual slip occasions — actions that take weeks, typically months to finish. However on the southern finish of the island, as an alternative of sliding slowly as they do within the northern space, the tectonic plates lock. This locking units up the situations for a sudden launch of the plates, which may set off a giant earthquake.

“It’s actually curious and never understood why, in a comparatively small geographic space, you’d go from plenty of small, slow-moving earthquakes to a potential for a actually giant earthquake,” mentioned marine electromagnetic geophysicist Christine Chesley, a graduate pupil at Columbia College’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead writer on the brand new paper. “That’s what we’ve been attempting to grasp, the distinction on this margin.”

In December 2018, a analysis workforce started a 29-day deep-sea cruise to gather knowledge. Much like taking an MRI of the Earth, the workforce employed electromagnetic wave power to measure how present strikes by means of options within the ocean flooring. From these knowledge, the workforce was capable of get a extra exact take a look at the function seamounts, giant undersea mountains, play in producing earthquakes.

“The northern a part of the margin has actually giant seamounts. It had been unclear what these mountains can do once they subduct (dive down into the deep earth) and the way that dynamic impacts the interplay between the 2 plates,” mentioned Chesley.

It seems, the seamounts maintain a lot extra water than geophysicists had anticipated — about three to 5 instances greater than typical oceanic crust. The considerable water lubricates the plates the place they be a part of, serving to to clean any slippage, and stopping the plates from the sticking that may arrange a giant earthquake. This helps clarify the tendency towards the gradual, silent earthquakes on the northern finish of the margin.

Map of the Hikurangi subduction zone and places the place electromagnetic receivers have been deployed to gather knowledge. Credit score: Christine Chesley, utilizing GeoMapApp and knowledge from William Ryan et al., Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems (2009)

Utilizing these knowledge, Chesley and her colleagues have been additionally capable of carefully look at what is occurring as a seamount subducts. They found an space within the higher plate that appears to be broken by a subducting seamount. This higher plate zone additionally appeared to have extra water in it.

“That implies the seamount is breaking apart the higher plate, making it weaker, which helps clarify the weird sample of silent earthquakes there,” mentioned Chesley. The instance offers one other indication of how seamounts affect tectonic habits and earthquake hazards.

Conversely, the shortage of lubrication and the weakening results of seamounts might make the southern a part of the island extra susceptible to sticking and producing giant earthquakes.

Chesley, who’s on monitor to finish her Ph.D. within the fall, hopes that these findings will encourage researchers to contemplate the way in which water in these seamounts contributes to seismic habits as they proceed to work to grasp slow-moving earthquakes. “The extra we examine earthquakes, the extra it appears water performs a starring function in modulating slip on faults,” mentioned Chesley. “Understanding when and the place water is enter into the system can solely enhance pure hazard evaluation efforts.”

Reference: “Fluid-rich subducting topography generates anomalous forearc porosity” by Christine Chesley, Samer Naif, Kerry Key and Dan Bassett, 7 July 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03619-8

Samer Naif, former Lamont Assistant Analysis Professor, now assistant professor at Georgia Tech; Kerry Key, affiliate professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; and Dan Bassett, analysis scientist at GNS Science, collaborated on this analysis. This challenge was funded by the Nationwide Science Basis.
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