Research Highlights

Complicated Creep where Three Plates Meet

February 2017

Earthquakes with magnitudes bigger than 6 rock the tiny community of Petrolia in Humboldt County, CA with an astonishing frequency. The faults that produce these quakes are mostly offshore, part of the Mendocino Triple Junction where three tectonic plates meet. Their locations make them particularly difficult to study.

Aseismic creep, movement of the ground along a fault in the absence of earthquakes, is an important characteristic of faults. To get at the aseismic creep rates in the Mendocino Triple Junction, Kathryn Materna and colleagues analyzed so-called repeating earthquakes - earthquakes that occur when the same patch of ground fails over and over again. Materna’s code processed eight years of Cape Mendocino earthquakes, comparing the seismic signatures (waveforms) of each event and sorting them into “families.” From each family, Materna inferred a rate of creep on a specific section of a fault.

In her presentation “Measuring aseismic slip through characteristically repeating earthquakes at the Mendocino Triple Junction, Northern California,” which won an American Geophysical Union Outstanding Student Paper Award, Materna finds a high creep rate at the transform boundary between the Pacific and Gorda Plates. Closer to shore, beneath the North American Plate, the data suggest a more complicated and depth-dependent pattern of deformation. By analyzing the growing dataset of repeating earthquakes, Materna and coauthors are gaining new insights into the present-day tectonics of the Mendocino Triple Junction. Interestingly, their dataset also shows that creeping faults in the Mendocino Triple Junction can increase or decrease their creep rates in response to nearby large earthquakes.

Monitoring Lassen

November 2016

The Lassen Volcanic Center sits atop a hydrothermal system that might one day be the scene of hydrothermal explosions. Researchers keep watch over this area, and a new form of monitoring may soon be added to their arsenal.

graph with error bars

Change in velocity of seismic waves at LVC over time, showing its response to the Greenville quake (top) as well as to snow (bottom).

The Berkeley Seismology Lab’s Taka’aki Taira, along with Florent Brenguier (Université Grenoble Alpes) have developed a system that analyzes seismic “noise” -- vibrations without a distinct source. This recorded ambient noise, from six stations in the Northern California Seismic Network around Lassen Peak, is automatically processed to pinpoint changes in how fast seismic waves go through this area, which can indicate changes in tectonic stress in volcanic areas.

In a new paper, highlighted in last week’s SpringerOpen blog, Taira and Brenguier track the seismic velocity for the Lassen Volcanic Center over more than four years. The differences in seismic velocity over time show the effects of the M 5.7 Greenville earthquake as well as the stresses associated with snow (changes in groundwater and surface loading.)

But the monitoring system could be improved. The current system outputs a daily velocity change. With more computing power, researchers could perform the massive cross-correlation computations required to give an hourly update, enabling researchers to detect changes in velocity that accompany and perhaps precede volcanic activity.

Read more about this topic at the SpringerOpen blog.

Complex Behavior of a Nevada Earthquake Swarm

November 2016

For five months in 2008, a swarm of shallow earthquakes alarmed residents as they shook the Mogul neighborhood of West Reno, NV. Earthquake depths as shallow as 1 km below the Earth’s surface were widely felt, even at low magnitudes. Scientists rapidly moved to install temporary seismic instrumentation in west Reno for the purpose of recording the quakes, from the larger earthquakes down to micro-seismicity. The biggest quake, with a moment magnitude of 4.9, was unusual. This earthquake's sense of slip - the relative motion of the rock on each side of the fault with respect to the other side - was different from the so-called "dip-slip" faults that geologists had mapped in the area.

so-called Beach Balls from Ruhl's paper

Beach-ball diagrams from tiny earthquakes in the 2008 Mogul swarm.

In a paper to be published in JGR: Solid Earth, Berkeley Seismology Lab post-doc Christine Ruhl and colleagues at University of Nevada, Reno and Boston University have mined the high-quality earthquake data set collected during the Mogul sequence to elucidate the structure of the faults active in the swarm. Ruhl and others used a technique called double-difference relocation to precisely determine the location of as many earthquakes as possible, including the tiniest recorded quakes in the swarm. They also computed focal mechanisms for more than a thousand earthquakes, ranging in magnitude from 4.9 down to magnitude zero. Focal mechanisms, the basis of the "beach ball diagrams" shown in the figure at right, tell seismologists which way the faults slipped and how the faults are oriented.

The team discovered more about the behavior of the swarm, revealing distinct clusters within the sequence and that it was driven by fluid beneath the surface. Fluids often play an important role in earthquake triggering; increased pore pressures facilitate rupture and enable swarms of seismicity to occur. Their work also revealed more about the faulting beneath west Reno: the quakes delineated the structure of the previously unknown Mogul fault, which may be evolving into a strike-slip fault zone, where motion is primarily horizontal.

Says Ruhl, “Temporary deployments during unusual earthquake sequences were essential for our very detailed study of the Mogul earthquakes and will continue to be an important tool in investigating the evolution of complex seismic sequences in the future.”

For researchers: View the paper at JGR: Solid Earth.

Ongoing Research

Earthquake Early Warning for California

Earthquake early warning user display.

Earthquake Early Warning

Earthquake early warning user display.

Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) is a method of rapidly identifying an earthquake in progress and transmitting alerts to nearby population centers before damaging ground shaking arrives.

The first few seconds of the initial P-wave arrivals at one or more stations are used to detect the event. A warning of imminent shaking can be used to activate automatic safety measures, such as slowing down trains, isolating sensitive factory equipment, or opening elevator doors. We envision the alerts will be sent directly to the public via cell phone, computer, television, or radio. The Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, together with its project partners, is collaborating to build a single, integrated, end-to-end system for testing Earthquake Early Warning in California.


Research Groups at the Berkeley Seismo Lab

The Global Seismology Research Group at UC Berkeley is a part of the Department of Earth and Planetary Science and our research focuses on structure and dynamics of the deep earth, from the crust to the inner core. We tackle theoretical wave propagation problems in complex 3D media, including forward modeling and tomographic inversion for elastic as well as anelastic structure. In order to better understand the chemical and thermal state of the mantle and the processes operating therein, we seek to apply the latest findings of the mineral physics community within the context of our seismic probing. We also study earthquake source mechanisms and scaling laws, as well as global seismic moment release and its relation to plate tectonics. One of our recent research directions concerns the Earth's "hum" and the insights it brings to ocean/atmosphere/solid earth interactions.

The Active Tectonics research group is part of the Department of Earth and Planetary Science and our research focuses on problems relating to fault zone processes and crustal deformation. We rely on geodetic measurements using GPS and InSAR, investigations of seismicity, examination of tectonic landscapes, and field mapping of geologic structures. Such observations can be used to constrain models of the first-order mechanics of an actively deforming region, such as the San Andreas fault system, the Sumatra-Andaman subduction zone, volcano deformation on the Big Island of Hawaii, or the India-Eurasia collision zone. Many of our efforts are focused on elucidating the various components of the earthquake cycle and related rheological properties of lithospheric materials. We also consider repeating micro-earthquakes and deeply seated non-volcanic tremors to improve our understanding of the behavior of shallow and deep fault zones, respectively. Our approach is interdisciplinary, integrating geodetic, geomorphic, geologic, and seismological observations along with theoretical modeling.

The The Earth Imaging group uses a wide variety of seismological techniques to image 3D Earth structure in an effort to understand the dynamic processes responsible for deformation, volcanism and earthquakes at the Earth's surface.

The Realtime Seismology group is interested in all aspects of rapid geophysical data characterization. The desire for realtime information is motivated by hazard mitigation objectives, and the development of such techniques drives fundamental research into earthquake source processes.

The Seismic Source Group focuses on the use of seismic waveform data to investigate seismic sources (tectonic and non-tectonic), wave propagation, and various geophysical inverse problems. Additionally, research is conducted to develop robust automated procedures to analyze earthquakes as they occur and to report strong shaking levels on a local and regional scale.

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