|Buzz Aldrin next to the first seismometer on the moon, which he installed 40 years ago today. In the background is Eagle, Apollo's lunar lander. Photo: NASA (Click to view larger image.)|
When the first human set foot on the moon 40 years ago today, it was not only a "small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind"; it was also a red-letter day for seismology. During their 21-hour long stay in Mare Tranquillitatis, Neil Amstrong and Buzz Aldrin set up a seismometer (see Figure 1). And minutes after the sensor had settled down, it recorded the first moonquake and transmitted its data back to Earth. Never before had seismologists seen the interior rumblings of another heavenly body. The seismometer, which the astronauts of Apollo 11 installed, returned data for just three weeks. More advanced instruments were deployed later by the crews of Apollo 12, 14, 15, and 16 near their respective landing sites. These sensors transmitted their recordings down to Earth for years, until the broadcasts ceased in September 1977.
The lunar seismometers registered more than 12,000 seismic events. Over the years, researchers discovered that these moonquakes fall into four distinct categories. Most exciting was that about half of the moonquakes originate much deeper than any quake on Earth. The foci of these deep moonquakes are located in the lower mantle of the moon at a depth of between 435 and 750 miles. It turned out that these quakes do not occur at random time intervals. Instead, they repeat in a 27-day pattern. As this is the time it takes the moon to circle the Earth once, researchers concluded that these quakes are caused by the tidal forces that the Earth exerts on the moon. All of these deep moonquakes had magnitudes smaller than 3 (see left panel of Figure 2).
|Three types of moonquakes are shown here (explanation: see text). The top three rows are the recordings of a three-component long-period seismometer; the bottom row are the registriations of a short period instrument.Graphics by Yosio Nakamura, UT Austin.|
The average magnitude of the second largest group of lunar temblors was even smaller. These moonquakes have a very shallow origin of only a few miles at most and are generated by the thermal stresses along fracture planes in the uppermost lunar crust. Their cause is the enormous temperature difference of more than 400 degrees F between day and night on the lunar surface
At least 1700 other moonquakes were the rumblings of the lunar crust as a result of meteorite impacts on the moon's surface (see right panel of Figure 2). Because the moon does not have an atmosphere of any significance, most meteorites do not burn up due to the frictional heat as they do on their way through the Earth's atmosphere, but instead make it all the way to the lunar surface with a bang.
Most worrisome, however, is the smallest group yet discovered in the lunar dataset. Researchers found 28 sizeable shallow moonquakes with magnitudes of up to 5 (see central panel of Figure 2). They occur at depths of less than 100 miles and would certainly be felt by astronauts working on the moon. Because of these quakes, any future lunar base envisioned by NASA would have to be built with seismic safety codes in mind. (hra041)
Fig 1. Photo: Horst Rademacher
When you throw a stone in a quiet pond or dip your finger in a puddle, a nice circular wave emerges on the surface of the water. It gently moves across the pond in a concentric pattern (see photo). Physicists call these ripples "surface waves", because only the molecules in the top few inches of the water are being moved by such waves. The deeper you probe the pond, the less effect such waves have. Already a foot or so beneath the surface, the water stays completely calm as these waves pass overhead.
Fig 2. Seismogram showing P, S, and surface waves from the magnitude 7.6 New Zealand event recorded at station BKS.
A very similar pattern of waves follows every earthquake. When the Earth moves in a temblor, it generates more than just the P- and S-waves we described a while ago (see blog September 10, 2008). Surface waves also emerge, but unlike their relatives on the water surface of a pond, they can be anything but subtle. Take the strong earthquake which happened last night (Pacific Daylight Time) off the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. Although it had a magnitude of 7.6 and was located just 20 miles beneath the surface, it caused surprisingly little damage in New Zealand's coastal towns. But even though the quake's hypocenter lay all the way across the Pacific, it made the ground in Berkeley move by 1/10 of an inch. The blogger doubts that anybody would have felt this swaying of the ground, because the period of such surface waves from far away earthquakes is 20 seconds or more. As you can see in the seismogram, it took more than an hour for all the surface waves generated by the New Zealand quake to pass California.
In contrast to their relatives in the pond, these seismic surface waves did not travel across the surface of the Pacific Ocean. They traveled along top layers of the Earth's crust, and during their journey they don't care if the rocks are hidden under water or exposed on a continent. The seismic surface waves spread as elastic waves through the crust in the same pattern as the water waves on a pond.
Even though the spreading pattern of such surface waves looks nice and simple and the movement is - mostly - gentle, the physics behind them is rather complex. More about that in the next blog. (hra040)
The underground test of a nuclear weapon in North Korea on Memorial Day was registered by earthquake detectors all around the world - among them many stations of our Berkeley Digital Seismic Network (see blog January 9, 2009). Our station deep inside the Yreka Bluehorn Mine (Siskiyou County) - dubbed YBH - is also part of the International Monitoring System (IMS). It is run by a suborganization of the United Nations in the Austrian capital Vienna, which has what is probably one of the most complicated names on Earth: "The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization."
Underground detonations of nuclear weapons can be detected like earthquakes for a simple physical reason. In both cases - either when rocks rupture in a quake or during the explosion - very strong forces rapidly act inside the Earth. This leads to intensive shaking of the rocks around the hypocenter, which in turn generates elastic waves. They can travel thousands of miles and are detected by sensitive seismometers.
There are, however, major differences between the seismograms of natural tectonic earthquakes and those of explosions. Firstly, the waveforms look very different. While an earthquake generates strong S-Waves, the seismograms of underground nuclear test lack most of these waves. Instead, the P- (or primary or pressure) waves dominate the seismogram from the detonation of an atomic bomb below ground (see figure 1).
A second way to distinguish between the origins of the elastic waves is to analyze the data collected by many stations in what is known as a "Moment Tensor Solution." By performing this computation, seismologists trace the elastic waves back to their origin. That not only pinpoints the precise location of the focus, it also shows the mechanism of the forces initially shaking the rocks. During an earthquake, rock breaks in a shear fracture, which results in the rapid sideways movement of two flanks of a fault. In an explosion, however, the origin is indeed a point, from which elastic pressure waves travel concentrically outward. Berkeley's Moment Tensor Solution for the most recent North Korean test is shown in figure 2. (hra039)
|Figure 1: From "Sleuthing Seismic Signals", Science and Technology Review, March 2009, published by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.|
|Figure 2: Moment tensor for the North Korea seismic event of 25 May 2009 calculated by Prof. Doug Dreger using the BSL's complete waveform regional moment tensor code for a source depth of 800m. The seismic waves from this event are consistent with a shallow explosion source.|
When the Earth began shaking under the fertile soils of the Red Basin in China's Sichuan province a year ago today, nobody knew how bad it was going to get. It turned out that with its magnitude of 7.9, this quake was not only the world's strongest temblor last year. It was also the worst earthquake disaster to hit China in more than 30 years. Up to 80,000 people - an official number was never released - died in the rubble of the quake. Many victims were school children, as more than 14,000 classrooms were damaged, half of them collapsed entirely. Almost 400,000 people had to be treated for their injuries, which they sustained under tumbling buildings or in the numerous landslides in the mountainous epicentral region.
The earthquake occured at the Longmen Shan Fault Zone, which marks the tectonic boundary between the eastern Tibetan Plateau and the Sichuan Basin. Its epicenter (yellow ball in Figure 1) was located less than 60 miles from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province with its 11 million inhabitants. Here is what happened during the quake: Tibet, being pushed constantly by the northward movement of the Indian subcontinent, squeezed out a part of itself towards the east, resulting in this major "thrust earthquake" (Figure 2).
But several Chinese scientists speculated that other factors may have contributed to the severity of the quake. In the Chinese journal "Geology and Seismology," Fan Xiao, the chief engineer of Sichuan's provincial geology office, and others even went so far to say that the water in a recently built reservoir might have triggered this devastating earthquake. In 2001 work was started at the Zipingpu Reservoir. Its 470 ft high concrete dam sits just upstream from Dujiangyan. This city is home to a Unesco World Heritage site. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System was built in 256 BC and is still in use today. But the dam was also located just four miles from epicenter and was damaged severely during the quake.
The scientists speculate that the extra pressure of the water in the reservoir may have caused the Longmenshan Fault to slip, thereby releasing the tectonic energy stored in it. That does not mean that the earthquake would not have happened anyway. But the additional hydrostatic pressure from the 320 million tons of water stored behind the dam may have triggered the quake several years before it would have been due without the dam. We will explore how such "induced seismicity" works in one of the future blogs. (hra038)
|Figure 2: A piece of lower crust (red blob) squeezed between the Tibetan Plateau and the lowlands of Sichuan. Image courtesy of MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.|
Fig 1 (oil film). Photo: Horst Rademacher
Earthquakes make waves. That's a trivial, commonplace statement, given the fact that seismic waves can violently shake the ground and topple buildings. But there is another kind of wave generated by temblors, which can only be seen after heavy numerical manipulation of the data from certain types of satellites.
Fig 2 (InSAR), Map courtesy of INGV and ESA (Click to view larger image.)
Here is how it works: About a half dozen of the satellites currently circling the earth continuously send out radar beams to probe the Earth's surface. They have a separate sensor on board which registers the radar beam's reflection off the ground. The primary mission of these "Synthetic Aperture Radars" (SAR) is to exactly map the altitude of the surface with a precision of one half inch or less. To the delight of earth scientists, the radar sensors have an additional benefit. Every few weeks, the satellite path repeats. That means it passes over the same regions of the Earth in the same order. It is then possible to detect slight changes in the elevation of the Earth's surface which have occurred from one fly-over to the next.
Let's apply this to seismology: The European satellite "Envisat," which carries a SAR sensor, flew over the Abruzzo region of Central Italy on February 1, 2009 and then again six weeks later on April 12. In the mean time, a devastating earthquake occurred near the town of L'Aquila, killing more than 260 people (see blog April 6, 2009). Italian scientists compared the radar pictures taken during the two successive orbits using a numerical technique called "Interferometry," essentially subtracting one picture from the other. The result is a map of colored waves, similar to the iridescent patterns one can see on a soap bubble or when an oil film covers a puddle (see Fig 1). Just as a physicist can use these color patterns to determine the thickness of the oil film or the bubble walls, Earth scientists can interpret the maps. Each colored ring is a measure of how much the ground has moved as a result of the earthquake. In this case, each ring represents a movement of just over an inch.
Figure 2 shows this pattern for the Abruzzo quake. The large green square represents the location of the main shock; the smaller green squares show large aftershocks. Along the yellow line east of
L’Aquila geologists found an alignment of surface breaks after the quake, which indicate the orientation of the rupture. The colored wave pattern follows those breaks exactly, indicating that the ground had moved a total of seven inches down to the left side of the yellow line. This movement is also represented by the black and white fault plane solution on the left. More on these "beach balls" in one of the next blogs. (hra037)