11 August 2003

New Tool For Predicting Mega Earthquakes

by Kate Melville

Researchers have found an important new application for seismic reflection data, commonly used to image geological structures and explore for oil and gas. Recently published in the journal Nature, new use of reflection data may prove crucial to understanding the potential for mega earthquakes.

Mladen Nedimovic, the lead author and a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, examined reflection data collected on the northern Cascadia margin off the coast of Vancouver Island. Cascadia margin is an area where the north Pacific seafloor is being pushed under the continental margin of North America. Locations where oceanic plates are underthrusting the continents are known as subduction zones. Within subduction zones are enormous faults called megathrusts, the places where the two tectonic plates meet and interface one another. Megathrusts are the source of the largest and most devastating earthquakes on Earth.

From the reflection data, Nedimovic and his coauthors mapped the locked zone on the megathrust along the northern Cascadia margin, which hosts the populous cities of Vancouver and Seattle. Locked zones, where geological structures beneath the surface are tightly interfaced, build up enormous pressure as the Earth shifts.

In 1700, the pressure beneath the Cascadia margin was released, resulting in a magnitude 9 earthquake that devastated the region. A magnitude 9 earthquake releases over 1000 times more energy than was released during the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake that shook Seattle two years ago.

Currently, dislocation and thermal modeling are used for mapping locked zones, however, both methods rely on many assumptions about Earth's structure that may limit their accuracy. In fact, for the northern Cascadia margin, estimates of the locked zone using these techniques indicate that a 36 mile swath of land from the subduction trench toward Vancouver Island is locked. Nedimovic's reflection analysis shows that it is more likely to be a 56-mile swath, extending the zone some 20 miles closer to land. If this is accurate, rapidly growing inland cities face a greater threat from megathrust earthquake hazards than previously anticipated. The occurrence rate for great earthquakes on the Cascadia megathrust is approximately every 200 to 800 years. We are currently within the timeframe where another large earthquake is expected, with the last earthquake having occurred over 300 years ago.

Seismic and aseismic slip occurs on different parts of a megathrust, at different depths, temperatures, and pressures, and due to different types of rock deformation. Brittle rock failure affects a narrow zone around the thrust where seismic slip is observed, and plastic deformation affects a much wider area above the thrust where the slip is slow and aseismic. Seismic reflection imaging reveals the variations in structures along the megathrust and can be used for detailed mapping of locked and slow-slipping zones.

"Deep seismic reflection images from Alaska, Chile, and Japan show a similar broad reflection band above the megathrust in the region of stable sliding and thin thrust reflections further seaward where the megathrust is locked, suggesting that reflection imaging may be a globally important predictive tool for determining the maximum expected rupture area in great subduction earthquakes," said Nedimovic. " Mega earthquakes have been instrumentally recorded for all three regions making them potential targets for a future investigation to confirm the reflection method and improve characterization of megathrust seismic hazards in the study area."