Not all earthquakes make waves. During slow “aseismic” earthquakes, tectonic plates deep in subduction zones can slide past one another for days or even months without producing seismic waves. Why some subduction zones produce devastating earthquakes and tsunamis while others move benignly remains a mystery. Now a new study is shedding light on the behavior of fluids in faults before and after slow-slip events in the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Aseismic earthquakes, also known as episodic tremor and slip, were discovered about 20 years ago in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where oceanic plates are descending beneath the North American plate at a rate of about 40 millimeters per year. This 1,000-kilometer-long fault has a dangerous reputation but has not produced a major earthquake since the magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake and tsunami that struck on 26 January 1700. Scientists think that some of Cascadia’s energy may be dissipated by regular aseismic events that take place deep in the fault zone roughly every 14 months.
Episodic tremor and slip occur deep in subduction zones, and previous studies have suggested that these slow-slip events may be lubricated by highly pressurized fluids. “There are many sources of fluids in subduction zones. They can be brought down by the descending plate, or they can be generated as the downgoing plate undergoes metamorphic reactions,” said Pascal Audet, a geophysicist at the University of Ottawa in Ontario and an author on the new study, published in Science Advances.
“At depths of 40 kilometers, the pressure exerted on the rocks is very high, which normally tends to drive fluids out, like squeezing a sponge,” Audet said. “However, these fluids are trapped within the rocks and are virtually incompressible. This means that fluid pressures increase dramatically, weakening the rocks and generating slow earthquakes.”
Eavesdropping on Slow Quakes
To study how fluid pressures change during slow earthquakes, lead author Jeremy Gosselin, also at Ottawa, and Audet and colleagues drew upon 25 years of seismic data, spanning 21 slow-earthquake events along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. “By stacking 25 years of data, we were able to detect slight changes in the seismic velocities of the waves as they travel through the layers of oceanic crust associated with slow earthquakes,” Audet said. “We interpret these changes as direct evidence that pore fluid pressures fluctuate during slow earthquakes.”
Audet and colleagues are still working to identify the cause and effect of the pore fluid pressure changes. “Is the change in fluid pressure a consequence of the slow earthquake? Or is it the opposite: Does an increase in pore fluid pressure somehow trigger the slow earthquake? That’s the next big question we’d like to tackle.”
“I’m surprised and impressed they were able to isolate these signals,” said Michael Bostock, a geophysicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who was not involved in the new study. “They’re very subtle, but they’re all pointing in the same direction.”
Theoretical models, as well as other seismic studies on subduction zones in Japan and New Zealand, have offered supporting lines of evidence that pore fluids are redistributed at the boundaries of tectonic plates during slow-slip events, Audet said. “Other studies have offered somewhat indirect evidence for this idea, but our study offers the first direct evidence that fluid pressures do in fact fluctuate during slow earthquakes.”
The next steps will be to conduct similar seismic studies on other subduction zones, Bostock said. It’s too soon to say whether this fluid behavior is universal to all slow-earthquake zones, but “there may be other factors at play as well, such as temperature and pressure, that create a sweet spot where slow earthquakes are more likely to occur,” he said. The right combination of overlapping factors may help explain why some fault zones record more aseismic events than others.
Whether these changes in fluid pressures could be used to predict where and when a slow-slip event might occur is unknown, Bostock said, although “slow earthquakes are already more predictable than regular earthquakes.” In Cascadia, for example, they’re known to occur about every 14 months, give or take, for reasons that remain unclear. “Prediction is the holy grail of earthquake science, but it’s fraught with difficulties. Tectonic faults, despite their grand scale, are very sensitive to perturbations in ways we don’t clearly understand yet.”
—Mary Caperton Morton (@theblondecoyote), Science Writer