Earthquake location (Map courtesy of INGV)
The earthquake which struck the Abruzzo region of Central Italy last night (local time) was the worst temblor to hit this Mediterranean country in almost 30 years. According to news reports, more than 90 people were killed and in the medieval town of L'Aquila alone, up to 10,000 buildings were damaged. The same region about 70 miles northeast of Rome was hit on January 13, 1915, when a magnitude 7.0 quake leveled the town of Avezzano, killing at least 33,000 people. Scientists at the office of the USGS in Golden, CO, calculated the magnitude of the latest quake at 6.3, while Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) put it at 5.8.
Beside Greece and Romania, Italy has the highest earthquake risk in Europe. During the last 100 years alone, more than 120,000 people have died in the rubble of buildings destroyed by quakes. The cause for this volatility is the slow drift of the African continent towards the North. The whole Mediterranean region is the collision zone between Africa and Europe. In California, we also live in a contact zone between two plates. Here the plate boundary between the Pacific and the North American Plates is limited to a relatively narrow zone defined by the San Andreas Fault and its associated faults like the Hayward and the Calaveras. Along these faults, the two plates slide past each other, the Pacific Plate moving towards the Northwest at a rate of about 2 inches per year.
|This map shows the seismic hazard in Italy. The Abruzzo region (star) is one of the most vulnerable in the country (Map courtesy of Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program)|
In Italy, however, the movement of the plates is a frontal collision. In a stringent geological sense, Italy's boot is part of the African Plate, ramming into Europe like a nail being hammered into a board. The most obvious consequence of this movement is the folding of the Alps, the highest mountain range in Europe. But this collision also leads to a movement in the shaft of Italy's boot. The Apennine mountains, which are the core of the shaft, are fractured by several major earthquake faults. One of them is the fault west of the Gran Sasso mountains, which was activated in 1915 and then again last night. The strongest quake to have hit Italy in modern times struck on December 28, 1908 at the toe of the boot. The epicenter of the magnitude 7.5 temblor was in the Strait of Messina, a narrow waterway separating the Italian mainland from the island of Sicily. At least 86,000 people were killed by this major temblor. (hra036)
While most of the Bay Area was rattled on Monday morning around 10:40 am by a magnitude 4.3 earthquake near Morgan Hill, another earthshaking event went almost unnoticed by the public - unless you were in Yosemite over the weekend. Early Saturday morning, a huge mass of rock came crashing down from Ahwiyah Point near Half Dome. Greg Stock, the Park Geologist at Yosemite, writes that the rocks "fell roughly 1800 feet to the floor of Tenaya Canyon, striking ledges along the way. Debris extended well out into Tenaya Canyon, knocking down hundreds of trees and burying the southern portion of the Mirror Lake loop trail... Fortunately, due to the event occurring in the early morning, there were no injuries."
But what happens when tons and tons of granite come crashing down unto the valley floor? Such an impact makes the ground vibrate and thereby creates seismic waves very similar to the ones being radiated by an earthquake. Indeed, on Saturday morning seismic stations all over Northern California and Nevada - as far away as 250 miles from Yosemite - registered these waves. The automatic earthquake location computer for Northern California at the offices of the USGS in Menlo Park picked up the recordings and calcuated an epicenter just half a mile to the northwest of Half Dome - which is actually pretty close to Ahwiyah Point. The program even computed a magnitude for the rock fall: Its impact had the same energy as a magnitude 2.4 earthquake.
While the seismic waves generated by a rock fall can be mistaken for the rumblings of an earthquake, the physics behind the two phenomena is completely different. Most earthquakes are the result of tectonic stress, which has accumulated in the rocks due to the movement of the lithospheric plates. A rock fall happens when the rock has been weakened by weathering. Water, which accumulates in cracks, freezes during the winter frosts. As ice occupies a larger volume as the same mass of liquid water, the freezing ice makes the rock expand and burst - similiar to a water bottle left in the freezer for too long. If such cycles of freezing and thawing are repeated often enough, the rock becomes loose and can break.
These rock bursts are by no means rare in granite world of Yosemite. Last October two rock falls hit some of the tents and cabins in Curry Village. In July 1996 more than 162,000 tons of rock cascaded down more than 2,000 feet, killing one visitor and crushing 500 trees. This blast was also recorded on many seismic stations, although it was somewhat smaller than Saturday's rock fall. After the 1996 event, BSL's Bob Uhrhammer analysed the seismic data carefully and reconstructed the details of the fall.
|Map showing many recent earthquakes near Bombay Beach, CA. (Courtesy of USGS)|
Seismologists are - like many other scientists - a curious and a restless bunch. Pronounced patience is usually not one of their prime virtues. However, in their job of earthquake monitoring, they sometimes resemble Vladimir and Estragon, the lead characters in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." But instead of expecting a mysterious fellow named Godot who never shows up, seismologists know exactly what to expect: A major temblor will come someday and wreak havoc in earthquake prone areas like California, Japan, Greece, or the Hindu Kush. And many a time this "Waiting for the Big One" is no less demanding than the dialogue of Beckett's characters: We seismologists know that our Godot will come, but we don't know when.
However, with events starting last weekend, earthquake researchers in Southern California are on alert. Forty-two smaller earthquakes near the hamlet of Bombay Beach on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea preceded a magnitude 4.8 event, which rattled the area early Tuesday morning. This moderate earthquake was widely felt in the sparsely populated region at the southern end of our state. Several dozen aftershocks followed, the largest having a magnitude of 3.1.
Why did this earthquake series put our colleagues in the Southland on higher alert? The temblors occured exactly at the southernmost tip of the San Andreas Fault (see blog November 4, 2008). Looking north from there towards Los Angeles, this section of California's major earthquake fault has not ruptured for many decades. This means that a lot of tectonic energy is currently stored in this part of the fault. It contains so much stress, that its possible rupture was the scenario for the biggest earthquake drill ever held in our state. During "The Great Southern California Shake Out" last November, the scenario assumed that the San Andreas Fault would start rupturing near Bombay Beach and would not stop for 120 miles, all the while sending out its destructive waves (see blog November 10, 2008).
Although seismologists operating the Southern California Seismic Network in Pasadena monitor the most recent shocks and aftershocks very carefully, no one can predict what will happen. Are those recent earthquakes starting to loosen up this locked section of the San Andreas fault - and thereby leading to the expected megarupture? Or was it just a cough of the Earth's crust, which will blow away without consequence, like the many sandstorms in the deserts surrounding the Salton Sea? (hra034).
Cannery Row, John Steinbeck, the Aquarium - they all seen synonymous with Monterey. Particularly the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its dazzling and sometimes dizzying display of sea creatures, is an attraction for locals and tourists alike. The avid blog reader may ask, what does this advertising pitch for the aquarium have to do with seismology. The answer can be found in a sprawling laboratory building a few miles north of Cannery Row in Moss Landing. This is where a sister institution of the aquarium has its home, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Without the work and support of their dedicated people, the seismic station MOBB (see two previous blog entries) probably would not exist.
Figure 1: A 3-D map of the Mars project (image courtesy of MBARI)
Founded in 1987, MBARI does much more than biological research in support of the aquarium. Several of their researchers are interested in marine geology, particularly in seismology. This led to a cooperation with BSL on placing seismometers on the ocean floor. The most recent result of the joint effort was the deployment of MOBB on the sea floor in April 2002 by the undersea robot "Ventana." This remotely operated vehicle is part of MBARI’s research fleet. It is carried out to sea by its mothership, "R/V Point Lobos." From a control room in the bow of the ship, a pilot operates the Ventana using a joystick and computer controls.
In the years following the deployment, Ventana regularly returned to MOBB every few months, supplied it with new batteries and collected its data. The recordings were then shipped to BSL and - ex post facto - integrated into our data base.
But MBARI folks had much bigger plans for MOBB. They wanted it to become part of a large ensemble of scientific sensors on the seafloor. These sensors were to be permanently linked to land by a cable, which would provide power and a high speed data link. This idea led to MARS, not the planet, but the Monterey Accelerated Research System. Its heart is a node resting on the seafloor some 23 miles off the coast of Moss Landing. It was installed last November and allows eight different sensors to be connected to it - and hence their data to become available in real-time to researchers on land. The first instrument connected was a sonde which measures the salinity, temperature and pressure of the ocean water. MOBB was added late last month. For what is still to come on the slope of submarine Monterey Canyon, visit the MARS website.(hra033)
|MOBB deployment with ROV (Courtesy of MBARI)|
Seismometers have always been marvels of the latest technology of their era. Consider the instrument invented by the German geophysicist Emil Wiechert more than a hundred years ago: A 2000 pound mass rests on a needle point at the bottom of a pylon - held in place by nothing more than a few springs. With a clever system of mechanical levers, the movement of this big mass relative to the shaking Earth was scratched into soot paper - resulting in a seismogram. Modern seismometers have much smaller masses of only a few ounces. They use electronic circuitry to allow recordings of extremely small Earth movements of a few nanometers - a thousand times less than the diameter of a human hair. These instruments, however delicate, are made for use on land, operable only with careful set-up and adjustment procedures.
Now imagine trying to place such a sensitive, modern seismometer under thousands of feet of water at the bottom of the ocean. Not only must the instrument, an Ocean Bottom Seismometer (OBS), be absolutely water-proof for such depths. It also needs to be able to operate reliably for months at a time without any connection to the outside world. Even the set-up is a challenge: On land BSL's engineers and technicians go out of their way to ensure that the sensor is placed correctly and operates in a stable thermal environment. On the seafloor, an underwater robot guided by commands from a ship above has to do the job (see Fig. 1).
OBS tested in Byerly Vault (Photo by Horst Rademacher)
The OBS off the coast of Monterey, which we recently incorporated into our real-time network (see blog February 28, 2009), was built by Guralp Systems Ltd. in the UK. Its core is a very broadband feedback seismometer with three components, similar to ones used on land (see Fig. 2). But the OBS has many additional features: A stable internal clock provides the time signal, which on land we literally pull out of the air from the signals of those same GPS satellites that help you navigate around town. A motorized gimbaling system makes sure that the sensor is set-up horizontally and stays that way in the mud on the seafloor. On land, the leveling is done by humans, by tuning with finely threaded stands.
And then there is the issue of water resistance. Good diving watches can be taken down to 300 feet; below that, the O-rings are squeezed so tightly that they leak. Diving even deeper, the water pressure might crack the watch's housing. To protect the OBS against the forces of the watery depths, it is placed in a titanium housing, which is rated to withstand the pressure of a 18000 foot deep water column. (hra032)