|Map of Iran showing peak ground acceleration (m/s2) as a result of the August 11th earthquakes. The city of Tabriz is denoted by the star in the Northwest part of the country. (Click to view larger image.)|
It was Saturday afternoon in Iran's historic city of Tabriz. Located in the Northwestern part of the country, many of the city's 1.4 million inhabitants are Azeris, closely related to the folks in neighboring Azerbaijan. Many people in Tabriz were watching the last events at the London Olympics when shortly before 5 PM local time, the first temblor stuck. Eleven minutes later, the earth violently shook again. The USGS office in Golden, CO, assigned these two quakes magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.3.
Although these two events were rather lightweight on the scale of strong earthquakes, they caused severe destruction mainly in the villages and hamlets around Tabriz and the smaller city of Ahar. At least 250 people were killed and several thousand were injured by the quakes.
Iran belongs to a huge earthquake zone which stretches from Portugal in the West to the Himalaya Mountains in the East. In this zone, three tectonic plates moving northward collide with the large, nearly stationary landmass of Eurasia. In the West, the African Plate pushes against Europe. The eastern section of the earthquake zone is dominated by the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia. In the central part of this earthquake belt, Eurasia is hit by the Arabian Plate.
The consequences of such a plate collision are similar to a car crash. Just as in a road accident where steel and plastic bend and split, so the Earth's crust deforms heavily where two plates crush into each other. This leads to continuously growing mountain ranges like the Alps in the western part of the belt and the Himalayas in the East. Similar mountains have formed in Iran, for instance the ranges of the Zagros and the Elbrus mountains.
The Arabian plate is drifting northwards with a speed of just over one inch per year. Although extremely slow by everyday standards, this movement is strong enough to cause mountain ranges to be folded and earthquakes to occur. The earthquakes in Turkey, like the one last year in East Anatolia are also a consequence of the tectonic collision between Arabia and Eurasia.
But in few other countries have so many people died in earthquakes as in Iran. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica more than 126,000 people died due to earthquakes in the last century alone. The largest catastrophe ever to strike this region of the world, hit the cities of Damghan and Ardabil in the ninth century, killing more than 350,000 people in two earthquakes. Before Saturday's quakes, the most recent devastating earthquake in Iran occurred in December 2003. The historic city of Bam was leveled then by a 6.6 magnitude quake. An estimated 25000 people were killed in the rubble. (hra079)
This seismogram, recorded at Berkeley's seismic station CMB in the Sierra foothills shows the ground movement associated with the sonic boom generated by the meteor. When the sonic boom reached the station, the ground was slightly pushed down by the pressure wave, hence the strong downward movement in the record. After a few seconds, the ground recovered elastically.
The loud boom, which was heard on Sunday morning around 8 am PDT over large areas of eastern California and Nevada, not only rattled the nerves of many who were rudely awakened by the bang. It also set off house and car alarms, and many frightened people called the police. Astronomers quickly determined that a meteor the size of a washing machine had entered the Earth's atmosphere traveling eastward over the West Coast. It may have been part of the annual Lyrid meteor shower, which peaked over the weekend. Similar to a jet flying at supersonic speed, the bolide's travel generated a sonic boom, which was heard over hundreds of square miles on both sides of the Sierra Nevada. However, the meteor was at least ten times faster than the speediest fighter jets.
The loud bang was also registered by many seismometers in the region, among them the sensitive instruments of the Berkeley Digital Seismic Network and its sister networks operated by the University of Nevada in Reno and by the United States Geological Survey.
How can these seismometers, which are designed to notice the slightest movement of the ground, also pick-up sound? In order to find out why, we need to venture a little bit into the physics of waves. Sound waves and seismic waves are essentially the same. Both belong to a group called elastic waves. A sound wave causes a back-and-forth motion of air molecules. When this vibration reaches our ear drums - or the diaphragm of a microphone - it is sensed or recorded as noise. In a similar fashion, an earthquake wave causes particles in the ground to vibrate, albeit with much lower frequencies than audible sound waves.
While most humans can hear sound waves with frequencies between a few hundred and about 15,000 Hertz (vibrations per second), earthquakes cause vibrations in the infrasound range and below. In general, these frequencies are too low to be heard by the human ear. However, seismometers are designed to operate best in the infrasound range down to extremely low frequencies of a few milli-Hertz. Hence, when the sound's frequency is low enough, it can be registered by a seismometer.
There are two reasons why a loud sonic boom like the one heard on Sunday morning leaves distinctive traces on the seismic networks. Firstly, a sonic boom consists of sound waves of a myriad of frequencies, among them some in the infrasound range. These low frequency vibrations can directly trigger a seismometer.
The other reason is the sonic boom's intensity. As an aircraft - or a meteor - jets through the air traveling faster than the speed of sound, it creates a series of sound waves in front of it and behind it. These waves are slower than the jet itself, because they cannot travel faster than the speed of sound in air - or in simple terms: They cannot get away from the aircraft fast enough. As the jet keeps producing more and more of these sound waves, they get stuck, are forced together and eventually, they merge into a single shock wave - the sonic boom. When it hits the ground, it not only dazzles our eardrums. It also generates a pressure pulse on the Earth's surface which leads to a good sized vibration. That is what gets picked-up by the seismometer
Seismic signatures of sonic booms were studied extensively when NASA's Space Shuttle fleet was still flying. Every time a Shuttle landed on the dry lake bed of Edwards Air Force Base east of LA, its sonic boom was registered by the seismometer network in southern California. More on these unique seismograms can be found here. (hra078)
The magnitude 8.6 earthquake, which struck off the coast of Sumatra last week, was one of those rare megaquakes. It belongs to the group of the ten or so strongest quakes ever measured. As explained in the previous blog entry, scientists were surprised - and certainly breathed a deep sigh of relief - that this quake did not cause a significant tsunami. In fact, hardly anybody was even seriously hurt when the extremely strong seismic waves caused by this quake hit the Indonesian islands closest to the epicenter. But once the immediate danger of a tidal wave was over, seismologists began to realize that this quake and its aftershock of 8.2 two hours later pose an immensely interesting, multifaceted scientific puzzle. Here is why:
These two quakes occurred in the immediate vicinity of the Sumatra subduction zone, where the Indian Ocean plate dives under fragments of the Eurasian plate. The Great Sumatra Quake of December 26th, 2004 had its origin in the same general area. But while this quake, which produced the devastating tsunami seven and a half years ago, had a focal mechanism expected for subduction zones, last week's quakes did not. They were earthquakes of the California type, that is the two flanks of the rupture slid past each other horizontally instead of slipping vertically against each other as in most subduction temblors. Such horizontal strike slip quakes have almost never been observed on the seaward side of a subduction zone. How and why they occurred off Sumatra is puzzle number 1.
The other unexpected feature of this quake should concern everybody in California. Most quakes along the San Andreas and its sister faults also shift in a strike slip fashion. Seismologists have always assumed that such strike slip events would be able to generate strong temblors, which are likely to cause a lot of damage. However, all the scientific evidence collected here in California and in other strike slip regimes around the world suggests that strike slip quakes cannot grow into really devastating megaquakes with magnitudes of 8 and greater. It seems that the horizontal slip fault zones are too weak to accommodate enough tectonic stress to delay rupturing until the breaking results in a megaquake. Well, since last Wednesday researchers have such an unexpected strike slip megaquake in their collection. And now they are scratching their heads as to how to fit these two unexpected aspects of the puzzle into current earthquake theory.
One possible solution was pointed out at an earthquake conference in Memphis last week by Lori Dengler, a Professor of Geology at Humboldt State University and California's foremost expert on tsunamis. She noted that the Great Sumatra Earthquake released a large amount of tectonic stress along its extremely large rupture area. As a consequence the mechanical stress along the fringes of the rupture area grew and put the surrounding rock under an immense strain, with two forces acting in opposite directions. This pattern is similar to the forces acting on the San Andreas Fault. When the rocks finally gave way last week, the result was a strike slip earthquake. And why was it so large? Dengler thinks that the rocks in the hypocentral area were virgin. They had never been broken in an earthquake before - in contrast to the rocks along the San Andreas fault, which have ruptured many times during the past eons. As a consequence, the oceanic crust off Sumatra was able to accumulate an enormous amount of stress. When the rocks finally gave way, the result was last week's megaquake. (hra077)
|Epicenters of last night's earthquakes and the great Sumatra quake of 2004. (Click to view larger image.)|
When their alarm pagers went off around 2 am PDT last night, most seismologists on the West Coast feared the worst. A magnitude 8.6 earthquake had struck the very area off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra that had suffered extreme damage by the now infamous Boxing Day earthquake on December 26, 2004. Then, hundreds of thousands of people were swept away by one of the biggest tsunamis in recent centuries. This monster wave was caused by a giant magnitude 9.2 earthquake. Although somewhat smaller, last night's magnitude 8.6 quake could have set off a similarly strong tsunami. Adding to the anxiety was the fact that about two hours after the first temblor, a second very strong earthquake shook almost the same area. It had a magnitude of 8.2. But after a few hours of anxious waiting, seismologists and emergency responders could relax. Only a small wave less than 3 feet high hit the west coast of Sumatra. It caused no significant damage. Along the shores of the rest of Indian Ocean just a few sensitive tidal stations registered a small disturbance.
Why did these two very strong earthquakes last night spare us a natural disaster similar to those that we witnessed after the 2004 Indonesia earthquake, or after the Tohoku quake, which struck in March of last year along the east coast of Japan, with a magnitude of 9.0? The differences in magnitude can not have been the only reason, because any offshore quake with a magnitude of more than 7.5 is potentially able to cause a tsunami. With their magnitudes of 8.6 and 8.2, last night's quakes were certainly within the tsunamogenic range and each one by itself could have generated a devastating tsunami.
One possible explanation for the tameness of the most recent quakes is their location. Both temblors occurred under the sea floor more than 60 miles to the southwest of the epicenter of the 2004 quake. This epicenter lay very close to the deep ocean trench, which represents the boundary line between the Indian Ocean and the Eurasian plates. Last night's quakes were much further from the trench and thereby further from Sumatra's coastline. But as we have seen again and again, distance is no protector from the devastating effects of a tsunami. These waves can cross an ocean basin with the speed of a jetliner and are able to wreak havoc thousands of miles away from their source.
The actual reason why the last two quakes did not generate any tsunami is their focal mechanism. Seismologists use this term to describe the relative direction in which the two rock masses actually move when they spring past each other in an earthquake. Take the temblors on our doorstep for example: Their mechanism is called strike slip, because our two home plates, the North American and the Pacific plates, scrape past each other horizontally. This results in quakes in which the two sides of the fault slip past each other without much vertical movement.
In contrast, the Great Sumatra Quake of 2004 had a completely different focal mechanism. It was a thrust event, in which almost all movement was vertical: One flank of the fault sprang upwards. This upwards thrust of the sea floor hit the water column above very hard, generating the monstrous killer wave. Last night's earthquakes were not of this dangerous thrust type, because their mechanisms were California style: The two flanks of the undersea fault slipped past each other horizontally. (hra076)
The series of small earthquakes, which shook the Bay Area two weeks ago occurred right under one of the more striking golf courses in the region. The Mira Vista Golf and Country Club in the hills of El Cerrito is not only known for its spectacular views of the Bay - hence its name. It is also one of the few golfing spots in the world, where tectonics and birdies meet. The course sits right on top of the northern Hayward Fault. If you strike a hole-in-one on the second hole, you may not necessarily claim only your talent or pure luck. Plate tectonics may have played a role, as the second fairway is essentially a section of the Hayward Fault, its direction determined more by the boundary of two lithospheric plates than anything else.
Because the golf course is tectonically so exposed, it is favored not only by golfers, but also by Earth scientists. In fact, much of what we know about the northern Hayward Fault stems from research conducted along and under Mira Vista's second fairway. One of the most important projects was a pair of trenches, dug by a group of researchers across the immaculate green. The goal of this big dig: Finding out how often in recent Earth history strong earthquakes had struck along the northern Hayward Fault.
If we want to know something about today's seismicity, we rely on digital recordings of seismometers. We learn about historic earthquakes from old newspaper articles, entries in the records of the California missions or reports by early explorers. However, in contrast to China or Japan, two seismically active countries with written histories going back millenia, the Golden State has only a very short tally. The oldest records in the Bay Area date back a mere 236 years to 1776, when Mission Dolores was founded in what is now San Francisco.
In earthquake history however, this time span of not even two and a half centuries is just a blink of an eye. The reason: Really big earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 or greater occur at any given spot along a faultline only every several hundred years. This long repeat interval poses a dilemma for "young" states like California. In order to estimate the probabilities of a strong shaker occurring, researchers need to know when the last few big ones ruptured certain sections of a fault line.
This is where paleoseismologists and their trenches come in. By exposing several meters of soil layers right on the fault trace, these researchers can count the number of previous earthquakes by analyzing characteristic patterns of disturbances within the layers left behind by big temblors. Fragments of charcoal or other dead organic matter buried within these disturbance allow them to be dated.
The results for Mira Vista: At least seven big quakes left their traces in the soil of the golf course. The last big quake shook the area sometime between 1640 and 1776. Given the typical movement of the fault of a few centimeters per year, another big quake seems imminent. This is one of the reasons that the northern Hayward Fault has the highest probability of all faults in the Bay Area that a strong quake will strike within the next 30 years. For a detailed description of the trench across the golf course, go here. (hra075)