Tonga is a seismologists’ paradise, and not just because of the white-sand beaches. The subduction zone off the east coast of the archipelago racks up more intermediate-depth and deep earthquakes than any other subduction zone, where one plate of Earth’s lithosphere dives under another, on the planet.
(From Science Daily)– “Tonga is such an extreme place, and that makes it very revealing,” said S. Shawn Wei, a seismologist who earned his doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis and now is a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
That swarm of earthquakes is catnip for seismologists because they still don’t understand what causes earthquakes to pop off at such great depths.
Below about 40 miles, the enormous heat and pressure in Earth’s interior should keep rock soft and pliable, more inclined to ooze than to snap. So triggering an earthquake at depth should be like getting molasses to shatter.
In the Jan. 11 issue of Science Advances, a team of seismologists from Washington University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Carnegie Institution for Science analyze the data from 671 earthquakes that occurred between 30 and 280 miles beneath Earth’s surface in the Pacific Plate as it descended into the Tonga Trench.
Analyzing data from several seismic surveys with both ocean bottom seismometers and island-based seismic stations, they were surprised to find a zone of intense earthquake activity in the downgoing slab, which they call a seismic belt.
The pattern of the activity along the slab provided strong evidence that the earthquakes are sparked by the release of water at depth.
“It looks like the seismic belt is produced by the sudden flushing of water when the slab warms up enough that the hydrated minerals can decompose and give off their water,” said Doug Wiens, the Robert S. Brookings Distinguished Professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
“The pressure of the fluid causes earthquakes in the same way that wastewater injected into deep wells causes them in Oklahoma,” Wiens said. “Although the details are very different when it’s many miles down, it’s the same physical process. “
A champion subduction zone
The Tonga Trench holds a place of honor in the annals of seismology because this is where American scientists, invited to investigate the grumbling earth by the King of Tonga, got their first clear glimpse of a subduction zone in action.
The classic paper that scientists Bryan Isacks, Jack Oliver and Lynn Sykes published in 1968 led to the acceptance of the then speculative theory of plate tectonics.
Read the full article here: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170111151428.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Fearth_climate%2Foceanography+%28Oceanography+News+–+ScienceDaily%29