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Understanding earthquakes using the geological record

Scientific meeting

Location

The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG

Overview

Scientific discussion meeting organised by Dr Owen Weller, Dr Alex Copley, Dr Clare Warren and Professor Peter Cawood.

Sheared pelitic schist from the Basong Tso region of southeast Tibet. Credit: Dr Owen Weller.

This meeting will focus on the interplay between deformation, metamorphism, and rheology of the lithosphere.

Modern geophysical research is revealing increasingly complex and spatially variable fault zone behaviours. The properties and deformation of the ductile crust and mantle are controversial, as is their influence on the overlying faults. Current models indicate a close coupling between metamorphism, rheology and deformation, but remain poorly constrained by geological observations.

The meeting will unite international experts in geodesy, seismology, metamorphism and rheology to characterise and understand the geological controls on fault behaviour, guiding future studies and advancing our understanding of earthquake hazard.

Speaker abstracts will be available closer to the meeting. Recorded audio of the presentations will be available on this page after the meeting has taken place. Meeting papers will be published in a future issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

Call for posters

Participants of the meeting will be able to present a poster. If you would like to apply to present a poster please submit your proposed title, abstract (not more than 200 words and must be in the third person), author list, name of the proposed presenter and institution to the Scientific Programmes team no later than Friday 17 January 2020. Please note that places are limited and are selected at the scientific organisers' discretion. Poster/talk abstracts will only be considered if the presenter is registered to attend the meeting.

An evening poster session and drinks reception will be held following the close of the meeting on Monday 17 February 2020. Whilst the posters are free to view for all registered participants, the corresponding optional drinks reception is ticketed. Drinks reception tickets can be purchased in advance during registration.

Attending the event

This meeting is intended for researchers in relevant fields.

  • Free to attend
  • Limited places, advanced registration is essential
  • An optional lunch can be purchased during registration

Enquiries: contact the Scientific Programmes team.

Event organisers

Select an organiser for more information

Schedule of talks

17 February

09:00-12:30

Present-day fault zone behaviour

9 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Dr Alex Copley, University of Cambridge, UK

Professor Lucy Flesch, Purdue University, USA

09:00-09:05 Welcome by the Royal Society and organisers

09:05-09:30 Geophysical imaging of fault-zone rheology

Professor Roland Bürgmann, University of Berkeley, USA

Abstract

Fault-zone rheology governs the mechanics of faults and the earthquake cycle and determines the hazards arising from fault slip in the Earth’s crust. Our knowledge of the frictional and bulk rheology of crustal fault zones has traditionally been based on laboratory rock mechanics experiments. However, such experiments have to be carried out at spatial and temporal scales that are very far from those found in nature. It is also possible to probe the mechanical properties of fault zones using geodetic and seismological observations of fault zones during transient periods of postseismic afterslip, fault slip and microseismicity modulated by tides and seasonal loads, and spontaneous slow slip events. These deformation episodes can thus serve as natural laboratory experiments that improve understanding of the mechanics of fault slip. Recent advances in space geodetic observations and seismological techniques have helped better illuminate fault-zone properties. As the data improve, increasingly physical models should be developed to determine fault zone properties. To better understand fault-zone structure and properties, it is also important to consider geological field observations of fault zones exhumed from varying tectonic settings and depths. Thus, to further this type of research it is essential to optimize and integrate a wide variety of observations. A number of recent examples are used to illustrate the promises and challenges of geophysical probing of fault-zone behavior and rheology. 

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09:30-09:45 Discussion

09:45-10:15 Relations between earthquake distributions, geological history, tectonics and rheology

Professor James Jackson CBE FRS, University of Cambridge, UK

Abstract

A first-order feature of the geological history of continents is the contrast between the long-lived stability of the ancient continental interiors and the widespread deformation in Phanerozoic orogenic belts; displayed most obviously in the asymmetry of the India-Asia collision. Through advances in seismic tomography, we can now make increasingly detailed maps of the variations in lithosphere (plate) thickness on the continents. The variations are dramatic, with some places up to 300 km thick, and clearly relate to the geological history of the continents as well as their present-day deformation. Where the lithosphere thickness is about 120 km or less continental earthquakes are generally confined to upper crustal material that is colder than about 350oC. On the edge of thick lithosphere, the entire crust may be seismogenic, with earthquakes sometimes extending into the uppermost mantle if the Moho is colder than 600oC; but the continental mantle is generally aseismic. In such regions, earthquakes in the continental lower crust at 400-600oC require the crust to be anhydrous (granulite facies) and are a useful guide or proxy to both composition and strength. These correlations have important implications for the geological evolution of the continents. They can be seen to have influenced features as diverse as: the location of post-collisional rifting; intracratonic basin formation; the location, origin and timing of granulite metamorphism; and the formation, longevity and strength of cratons. In addition, they have important consequences for earthquake hazard assessment on the slowly deforming edges of continental shields or platforms, where the large seismogenic thickness can host very large earthquakes.

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10:15-10:30 Discussion

10:30-11:00 Coffee

11:00-11:30 Earthquakes and mountain building in the Himalaya

Professor Jean-Philippe Avouac, California Institute of Technology, USA

Abstract

Earthquakes are deformation increments that must contribute to build geological structures and topography in the long run. The Himalaya is one place where this process can be observed at play. Crustal shortening is active and has produced a well-expressed thrust system and the highest topography on Earth today. It might have come as a surprise that, a result of both coseismic subsidence and intense mass wasting by landslides, the high Himalaya went down during the 2015, Mw7.8 Gorkha earthquake. Modeling shows that, in the Himalayan context, the topography actually builds up in the time period between large earthquakes due to thermally enhanced aseismic deformation. This kinematics results from the ramp-and-flat geometry and thermal structure of the thrust system, which in turn are the result of coupling between  crustal deformation and  erosion over the long-term.  This framework reconciles the geological and topographic expression of the Himalaya with its current activity. Within this framework, various types of observations can be used to inform rheological properties.  A low effective friction is necessary to allow slip with little heat production on the sub-horizontal décollement beneath the lesser Himalaya. Given that the décollement was locked before the Gorkha earthquake and didn’t produce any significant afterslip, the low friction is likely due to dynamic weakening during seismic sliding. Observations of post-seismic relaxation, crustal rebound following lake regression in south Tibet, and gravity can be used to constrain further the rheology of the crust and mantle lithosphere across the Himalaya and southern Tibet. 

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11:30-11:45 Discussion

11:45-12:15 The relation between long and short term deformation in actively deforming plate boundary zones

Dr Simon Lamb, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Abstract

It is now possible with satellite-based systems to monitor deformation of the Earth’s surface at high spatial resolution over periods of several decades and a significant fraction of the seismic cycle. The relation between deformation at this short timescale and long-term geological faulting, over 10s to 100s kyrs, is examined for subduction, continental shortening and rift settings, using examples from the active New Zealand and Central Andean plate boundary zone. Simple models of locking on a deep-seated megathrust or decollement, or mantle flow, provide excellent fits to the short-term observations without requiring any information about the geometry and rate of surface faulting. The short-term deformation in these examples cannot be used to determine the long term behaviour of individual faults, but instead places constraints on the forces that drive deformation. Thus, there is a fundamental difference between the stress loading and stress relief parts of the earthquake cycle, with failure determined by dynamical rather than kinematic constraints; the same stress loading can give rise to widely different modes of long-term deformation, depending on the strength and rheology of the deforming zone, and the role of gravitational stresses. The process of slip on active faults may have an intermediate timescale of kyrs to 10s kyrs, where faults fail piecemeal without any characteristic behaviour. Physics-based dynamical models of short-term deformation may be the best way to make full use of the increasing quality of this type of data in the future.

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12:15-12:30 Discussion

12:30-13:30

Lunch

13:30-18:00

Interplay between metamorphism and fault zone evolution

7 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Dr Owen Weller, University of Cambridge, UK

Dr Kristina Dunkel, University of Oslo, Norway

13:30-14:00 Rheological heterogeneities on the deep subduction interface, and possible relationships to episodic tremor and slow slip

Dr Whitney Behr, ETH Zürich, Switzerland

Abstract

Episodic tremor and slow slip (ETS) is observed in several subduction zones down-dip of the locked megathrust, and may provide clues for preparatory processes before megathrust rupture. Exhumed rocks provide a unique opportunity to evaluate the sources of rheological heterogeneity on the subduction interface and their potential role in generating ETS-like behavior. Data is presented from two subduction interface shear zones representative of the down-dip extent of the subduction megathrust: the Condrey Mountain Schist (CMS) in northern CA (greenschist to blueschist facies conditions) and the Cycladic Blueschist Unit (CBU) on Syros Island, Greece (blueschist to eclogite facies). Both complexes highlight the propensity for fluid-mediated metamorphic reactions to produce strong rheological heterogeneities. In the CMW, hydration reactions led to partial serpentinization of peridotite bodies and development of highly localized strain on their margins and distributed frictional-viscous deformation in their interiors. In the CBU, dehydration reactions in MORB-affinity basalts led to progressive development of strong eclogitic lenses within a weaker blueschist and metasedimentary matrix. Brittle deformation in the eclogites is coeval with ductile deformation in the surrounding blueschist and metasedimentary matrix, indicating concurrent frictional-viscous flow. Although transient deformation processes cannot easily be distinguished in exhumed rocks, three approaches (scaling analysis, comparison to experiments, and numerical modeling) are used to assess whether these heterogeneities could have generated deformation behaviors similar to deep ETS. All three approaches suggest that frictional-viscous heterogeneities of the types and length-scales observed in the exhumed rock record are compatible with ETS as documented in modern subduction zones.

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14:00-14:15 Discussion

14:15-14:45 Brittle-viscous deformation cycles and earthquake nucleation in the lower crust

Dr Luca Menegon, University of Oslo, Norway

Abstract

The deformation of the dry lower continental crust is commonly characterized by a cyclic interplay between viscous creep (mylonitisation) and brittle, seismic slip associated with the formation of pseudotachylytes. Seismic slip may trigger fluid infiltration, weakening, and a transition to viscous creep along faults initially characterized by frictional melting. The cyclical interplay between seismic slip and viscous creep implies transient oscillations in stress and strain rate during the activity of faults and shear zones steered by the earthquake cycle. This talk will discuss (i) the ability of shear zone microstructure to preserve evidence of transient high strain rate creep, and (ii) models for earthquake generation in the lower crust. Results from the study of exhumed networks of lower crustal mylonites and pseudotachylytes from different localities will be presented, with a focus on Nusfjord (Lofoten, Norway). In Nusfjord, granulite facies ductile shear zones dissect an anorthosite intrusion. The shear zones localize on precursor pseudotachylytes and developed at ca. 700°C and 0.8 GPa. Mylonitised pseudotachylytes locally preserve microstructures (i.e. layers of fine grained, ca. 10 m, dynamically recrystallized quartz) suggestive of transient high strain rate deformation that are interpreted as episodes of accelerated post-seismic creep. The shear zones occur in three main sets of parallel structures that separate undeformed blocks of anorthosite, within which pristine (non mylonitised) pseudotachylyte fault veins link adjacent or intersecting shear zones. These pristine pseudotachylytes represent direct identification of transient earthquake nucleation as a consequence of local stress amplification during ongoing aseismic creep in ductile shear zones.

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14:45-15:00 Discussion

15:00-15:30 Tea

15:30-16:00 Modelling metamorphic processes in the Earth’s crust

Professor Richard White, University of St Andrews, UK

Abstract

Much of the Earth’s crust is composed of metamorphic rocks that have experienced ancient orogenesis. During these orogenic events the rocks likely underwent continuous progressive metamorphism, with the presence of H2O-CO2 fluid or silicate melt inferred. However, as both fluid and silicate melt are mobile phases, they can leave the source rocks resulting in a distinct asymmetry to metamorphism. This asymmetry results in relatively dry metamorphic rocks. Such rocks are able to experience subsequent tectonic activity, but are likely to behave differently during any subsequent event. In particular, such dry rocks show a greater tendency to undergo deformation and metamorphism along discrete shear and fault zone structures which may be linked to seismic activity, with surrounding rocks resisting deformation and metamorphism and preserving the earlier metamorphic assemblages. This subsequent metamorphism also occurs over short, discrete timescales resulting in a non-progressive metamorphic reworking. A consequence of reworking under fluid/melt-absent conditions is the existence of typically high-temperature anhydrous minerals at conditions well below where they occur in fluid/melt-bearing systems, making the extraction of P–T conditions of formation difficult. Thus, the high-temperature, open system metamorphic processes that typify the first metamorphic event predispose the rocks to more brittle behaviour in subsequent metamorphic events.

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16:00-16:15 Discussion

16:15-18:00 Poster Session

18 February

09:00-12:30

Fault and earthquake mechanics

8 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Dr Luca Menegon, University of Oslo, Norway

Dr Clare Warren, The Open University, UK

09:00-09:30 On how tectonics affects seismicity

Dr Ylona van Dinther, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

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09:30-09:45 Discussion

09:45-10:15 Insights into the stress state at the deepest extent of major fault zones

Dr Lars Hansen, University of Oxford, UK

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10:15-10:30 Discussion

10:30-11:00 Coffee

11:00-11:30 Experimental constraints on the rheological properties of the lithosphere at the base of the seismogenic zone

Professor Greg Hirth, Brown University, USA

Abstract

A combination of laboratory, geologic and geophysical observations provides several independent constraints on the rheological properties of the lithosphere. However, several persistent challenges remain in the interpretation of these data. Problems related to extrapolation in both scale and time (rate) need to be addressed to apply laboratory data. Nonetheless, good agreement between extrapolation of flow laws and the interpretation of microstructures in viscously deformed lithospheric mantle rocks demonstrates a strong foundation to build on to explore the role of scale. Furthermore, agreement between the depth distribution of earthquakes and predictions based on extrapolation of high temperature friction relationships provides a basis to understand the links between brittle deformation and stress state. I will outline these and provide thoughts on where new progress can be made to resolve remaining inconsistencies, including discussion of the role of the distribution of volatiles and alteration on the strength of the lithosphere, and links between the location of earthquakes, thermal structure, and stress state. In this context, we have been exploring the role of fluids on the processes responsible for the brittle-ductile transition in quartz-rich rocks at experimental conditions where the kinetic competition between microcracking and viscous flow is similar to that expected in the Earth. Our analysis of this competition suggests that the effective pressure law for sliding friction does not work as “effectively” near the brittle-ductile transition (BDT) as it does at shallow conditions. We are investigating simple physically-motivated contact-scale models that explain these observations. The model also provides a context to investigate how the effective stress law evolves with variations in lithology (through its effects on asperity rheology), tectonic environment, strain rate and the evolution of pore-fluid pressure.

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11:30-11:45 Discussion

11:45-12:15 Is complex fault zone behaviour a reflection of rheological heterogeneity?

Dr Åke Fagereng, Cardiff University, UK

Abstract

Geophysically constrained fault slip speeds range from steady plate boundary creep through to earthquake slip. Geological observations show that faults accommodate slip by modes ranging from localised slip on one or more discrete failure planes, through to shearing flow distributed within a tabular zone of finite thickness, indicating a large range of possible strain rates in natural faults. Crosscutting relations between brittle and ductile structures demonstrate that strain rate can change both progressively and cyclically within a single fault zone. Both geological observations and numerical models have now shown that such temporal strain rate variations may arise from rheological heterogeneity in space. If fault slip style is related to fault zone heterogeneity, then there must be certain conditions that produce earthquakes, creep, and intermediate velocities. Because these slip styles occur over large ranges in temperature, the controlling conditions must be affected by more than temperature alone. We suggest that the strength ratio between relatively competent materials and their failure criteria, as well as the viscosity ratio of shear zone components, are important controls. Consequently, we propose a preliminary model for the bulk behavior of a mixed material shear zone. 

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12:15-12:30 Discussion

12:30-13:30

Lunch

13:30-17:00

Feedbacks between faulting, metamorphism, and large-scale tectonics

7 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Professor Peter Cawood, Monash University, Australia

Dr Whitney Behr, ETH Zürich, Switzerland

13:30-14:00 Impact of large-scale faulting and weak lower crust on India-Eurasia deformation inferred from 3-D geodynamic modeling

Professor Lucy Flesch, Purdue University, USA

Abstract

A key topic of contention involving continental deformation revolves around the relative importance of discrete faulting or distributed strain on the accommodation of observed deformation. We use 3-D, lithospheric, Stokes flow lithospheric simulations of the India-Eurasia (IN-EU) collision zone to investigate the effect of large-scale lithospheric faults on surface deformation and derive allowable bounds for fault strength and spatial scale. Lithospheric strength is constrained by laterally-varying, lithospheric-average effective viscosities and partitioned vertically to capture strength anomalies corresponding to geophysically-imaged slabs and weak Tibetan lower crust. Finite zones of low viscosity are introduced representing major fault systems of the IN-EU collision zone: the Karakorum, Altyn-Tagh, Kunlun, Jinsha Suture-Xianshuihe, Jiali-Red River, and Sagaing. We find (1) narrow zones of lithospheric scale weakness in conjunction with a weak lower crust are important for reproducing rotation in Southeast Tibet and (2) cases with finite zones of weakness representing large-scale faults produce focused uplift at the Longmen Shan and extension across southern Tibet and thickening in northeastern Tibet consistent with observations.

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14:00-14:15 Discussion

14:15-14:45 Microstructural records of earthquakes in the dry lower crust

Dr Kristina Dunkel, University of Oslo, Norway

Abstract

Both seismic data and the rock record show that earthquakes occur deep in the continental crust, below the standard seismogenic zone. Because of the high confining pressures at depth, seismic slip in the lower crust requires either high stresses, which can only be sustained over short timescales, or the activity of a local weakening mechanism. These generating mechanisms of lower crustal earthquakes are difficult to investigate because the records of such earthquakes, e.g. pseudotachylytes, are typically reacted and/or deformed. This talk will give a brief overview over lower crustal earthquakes in general and some microstructural features that can shed light on their origins, mechanisms and effects. It will then focus on a field and microstructural study from the Lofoten Vesterålen Archipelago, Northern Norway, where exceptionally pristine pseudotachylytes occur in lower crustal granulites. The most commonly invoked weakening mechanisms, such as dehydration embrittlement or thermal runaway, can be excluded here, because the pseudotachylytes and their host rocks are anhydrous and not associated with mylonites. Transient stress pulses caused by shallower earthquakes are the most likely explanation for the occurrence of fossil earthquakes in this case.

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14:45-15:00 Discussion

15:00-15:30 Tea

15:30-16:00 Linking micro-scale processes to macro-scale phenomena

Professor Sandra Piazolo, University of Leeds, UK

Abstract

To model present and future continental deformation and to increase our understanding of the location, recurrence and character of earthquakes, an in-depth understanding of the interaction and feedback between brittle and ductile deformation and their respective flow laws is needed. Millimeter to kilometer scale pinch-and-swell structures originate from this interplay of ductile and brittle deformation and are therefore ideally suited to investigate such behaviour. In these geological structures a more competent layer is subject to failure and subsequent ductile flow while the surrounding material is continuously viscously deforming. In addition to insights regarding the link between ductile and brittle behavior, these structures and their associated microstructures can be used derive relative and if combined with experimentally derived flow laws absolute viscosities of different rock units including highly heterogeneous rocks such as paragneisses and orthogneisses. At the same time, microstructures of upper crustal fault rocks with variable strain history offer the unique opportunity to investigate the temporal changes from brittle to ductile behavior and vice versa within a fault zone. Numerical models built on insights from such geological structures allow for transient brittle behavior in different crustal level. As such, these models can be used to predict the character of brittle behavior in the upper crust.

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16:00-16:15 Discussion

16:15-17:00 Panel discussion and future directions

Understanding earthquakes using the geological record

17 - 18 February 2020

The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK
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