Rice U. scientists uncover relationship between tremors, water at the Cascadia margin

October 25, 2018

The earthquakes are so small and deep that someone standing in Seattle would never feel them. In fact, until the early 2000s, nobody knew they happened at all. Now, scientists at Rice University have unearthed details about the structure of Earth where these tiny tremors occur.

Rice postdoctoral researcher and seismologist Jonathan Delph and Earth scientists Fenglin Niu and Alan Levander make a case for the incursion of fluid related to slippage deep inside the Cascadia margin off the Pacific Northwest's coast.

Their paper, which appears in the American Geophysical Union journal Geophysical Research Letters, links fluids escaping from deep subduction to the frequent shakes that Delph said happen in relative slow motion when compared to the sudden, violent jolts occasionally felt by Southern Californians at the southern end of the west coast.

"These aren't large, instantaneous events like a typical earthquake," Delph said. "They're seismically small, but there's a lot of them and they are part of the slow-slip type of earthquake that can last for weeks instead of seconds."

Delph's paper is the first to show variations in the scale and extent of fluids that come from dehydrating minerals and how they relate to these low-velocity quakes. "We are finally at the point where we can address the incredible amount of research that's been done in the Pacific Northwest and try to bring it all together," he said. "The result is a better understanding of how the seismic velocity structure of the margin relates to other geologic and tectonic observations."

The North American plate and Juan de Fuca plate, a small remnant of a much larger tectonic plate that used to subduct beneath North America, meet at the Cascadia subduction zone, which extends from the coast of northern California well into Canada. As the Juan de Fuca plate moves to the northeast, it sinks below the North American plate.

Delph said fluids released from minerals as they heat up at depths of 30 to 80 kilometers propagate upward along the boundary of the plates in the northern and southern portions of the margin, and get trapped in sediments that are subducting beneath the Cascadia margin.

"This underthrust sedimentary material is being stuck onto the bottom of the North American plate," he said. "This can allow fluids to infiltrate. We don't know why, exactly, but it correlates well with the spatial variations in tremor density we observe. We're starting to understand the structure of the margin where these tremors are more prevalent."

Delph's research is based on extensive seismic records gathered over decades and housed at the National Science Foundation-backed IRIS seismic data repository, an institutional collaboration to make seismic data available to the public.

"We didn't know these tremors existed until the early 2000s, when they were correlated with small changes in the direction of GPS stations at the surface," he said. "They're extremely difficult to spot. Basically, they don't look like earthquakes. They look like periods of higher noise on seismometers.

"We needed high-accuracy GPS and seismometer measurements to see that these tremors accompany changes in GPS motion," Delph said. "We know from GPS records that some parts of the Pacific Northwest coast change direction over a period of weeks. That correlates with high-noise 'tremor' signals we see in the seismometers. We call these slow-slip events because they slip for much longer than traditional earthquakes, at much slower speeds."

He said the phenomenon isn't present in all subduction zones. "This process is pretty constrained to what we call 'hot subduction zones,' where the subducting plate is relatively young and therefore warm," Delph said. "This allows for minerals that carry water to dehydrate at shallower depths.

"In 'colder' subduction zones, like central Chile or the Tohoku region of Japan, we don't see these tremors as much, and we think this is because minerals don't release their water until they're at greater depths," he said. "The Cascadia subduction zone seems to behave quite differently than these colder subduction zones, which generate large earthquakes more frequently than Cascadia. This could be related in some way to these slow-slip earthquakes, which can release as much energy as a magnitude 7 earthquake over their duration. This is an ongoing area of research."
Levander is the Carey Croneis Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and Niu is a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice. The Wiess Postdoctoral Fellowship at Rice supported the research.

Read the abstract at https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2018GL079518.

This news release can be found online at http://news.rice.edu/2018/10/25/tiny-northwest-quakes-tied-to-deep-crust-structure/

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.

Related materials:

Jonathan Delph website: https://jrdelph.wordpress.com

Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS): https://www.iris.edu/hq/

Global Seismology Group at Rice: http://www.gseis.rice.edu/index.html

Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences: https://earthscience.rice.edu/

Wiess School of Natural Sciences: https://naturalsciences.rice.edu

Images for download:


Rice University scientists studied how the density of microseismicity, or small tremors, related to the seismic structure of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. Red lines in the graphic at left correspond to cross-sections from northern Washington (top), central Oregon (middle), and northern California (bottom). The researchers determined a strong correlation exists between tremor density and underthrusting sediments (brown material in the graphics on right). Fluids that are released from the downgoing slab are concentrated in these sediments and lead to very slow seismic velocities in the region. (Credit: Jonathan Delph/Rice University)


Rice University postdoctoral researcher Jonathan Delph led a study that found evidence of water escaping during subduction and infiltrating sedimentary material related to small tremors that occur beneath the Pacific Northwest of the United States. (Credit: Rice University)

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation's top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,970 undergraduates and 2,934 graduate students, Rice's undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger's Personal Finance. To read "What they're saying about Rice," go to http://tinyurl.com/RiceUniversityoverview.

Rice University

Related Earthquakes Articles from Brightsurf:

AI detects hidden earthquakes
Tiny movements in Earth's outermost layer may provide a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the physics and warning signs of big quakes.

Undersea earthquakes shake up climate science
Sound generated by seismic events on the seabed can be used to determine the temperature of Earth's warming oceans.

New discovery could highlight areas where earthquakes are less likely to occur
Scientists from Cardiff University have discovered specific conditions that occur along the ocean floor where two tectonic plates are more likely to slowly creep past one another as opposed to drastically slipping and creating catastrophic earthquakes.

Does accelerated subduction precede great earthquakes?
A strange reversal of ground motion preceded two of the largest earthquakes in history.

Scientists get first look at cause of 'slow motion' earthquakes
An international team of scientists has for the first time identified the conditions deep below the Earth's surface that lead to the triggering of so-called 'slow motion' earthquakes.

Separations between earthquakes reveal clear patterns
So far, few studies have explored how the similarity between inter-earthquake times and distances is related to their separation from initial events.

How earthquakes deform gravity
Researchers at the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ in Potsdam have developed an algorithm that for the first time can describe a gravitational signal caused by earthquakes with high accuracy.

Bridge protection in catastrophic earthquakes
Bridges are the most vulnerable parts of a transport network when earthquakes occur, obstructing emergency response, search and rescue missions and aid delivery, increasing potential fatalities.

Earthquakes, chickens, and bugs, oh my!
Computer scientists at the University of California, Riverside have developed two algorithms that will improve earthquake monitoring and help farmers protect their crops from dangerous insects, or monitor the health of chickens and other animals.

Can a UNICORN outrun earthquakes?
A University of Tokyo Team transformed its UNICORN computing code into an AI-like algorithm to more quickly simulate tectonic plate deformation due to a phenomenon called a ''fault slip,'' a sudden shift that occurs at the plate boundary.

Read More: Earthquakes News and Earthquakes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.