New Images Of Alaska Sub-Seafloor Suggest High Tsunami Danger

Scientists probing under the seafloor off Alaska have mapped a geologic structure that they say signals potential for a major tsunami in an area that normally would be considered benign. They say the feature closely resembles one that produced the 2011 Tohoku tsunami off Japan, killing some 20,000 people and melting down three nuclear reactors. Such structures may lurk unrecognized in other areas of the world, say the scientists. The findings will be published tomorrow in the print edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The discovery “suggests this part of Alaska is particularly prone to tsunami generation,” said seismologist Anne Bécel of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who led the study. “The possibility that such features are widespread is of global significance.” In addition to Alaska, she said, waves could hit more southerly North American coasts, Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific.

Tsunamis can occur as giant plates of ocean crust dive under adjoining continental crust, a process called subduction. Some plates get stuck for decades or centuries and tension builds, until they suddenly slip by each other. This produces a big earthquake, and the ocean floor may jump up or down like a released spring. That motion transfers to the overlying water, creating a surface wave.

The 2011 Japan tsunami was a surprise, because it came partly on a “creeping” segment of seafloor, where the plates move steadily, releasing tension in frequent small quakes that should prevent a big one from building. But researchers are now recognizing it may not always work that way. Off Japan, part of the leading edge of the overriding continental plate had become somewhat detached from the main mass. When a relatively modest quake dislodged this detached wedge, it jumped, unleashing a wave that topped 130 feet in places. The telltale sign of danger, in retrospect: a fault in the seafloor that demarcated the detached section’s boundary landward of the “trench,” the zone where the two plates initially meet. The fault had been known to exist, but no one had understood what it meant.

The researchers in the new study have now mapped a similar system in the Shumagin Gap, a creeping subduction zone near the end of the Alaska Peninsula some 600 miles from Anchorage. The segment is part of a subduction arc spanning the peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. Sailing on a specially equipped research vessel, the scientists used relatively new technology to penetrate deep into the seafloor with powerful sound pulses. By reading the echoes, they created CAT-scan-like maps of both the surface and what is underneath. The newly mapped fault lies between the trench and the coast, stretching perhaps 90 miles underwater more or less parallel to land. On the seafloor, it is marked by scarps about 15 feet high, indicating that the floor has dropped one side and risen on the other. The fault extends down more than 20 miles, all the way to where the two plates are moving against each other.

The team also analyzed small earthquakes in the region, and found a cluster of seismicity where the newly identified fault meets the plate boundary. This, they say, confirms that the fault may be active. Earthquake patterns also suggest that frictional properties on the seaward side of the fault differ from those on the landward side. These differences may have created the fault, slowly tearing the region off the main mass; or the fault may be the remains of a past sudden movement. Either way, it signals danger, said coauthor Donna Shillington, a Lamont-Doherty seismologist.

“With that big fault there, that outer part of the plate could move independently and make a tsunami a lot more effective,” said Shillington. “You get a lot more vertical motion if the part that moves is close to the seafloor surface.” A rough analogy: imagine snapping off a small piece of a dinner plate, laying the two pieces together on a table and pounding the table from below; the smaller piece will probably jump higher than if the plate were whole, because there is less holding it down.

Other parts of the Aleutian subduction zone are already known to be dangerous. A 1946 quake and tsunami originating further west killed more than 160 people, most in Hawaii. In 1964, an offshore quake killed around 140 people with landslides and tsunamis, mainly in Alaska; 19 people died in Oregon and California, and waves were detected as far off as Papua New Guinea and even Antarctica. In July 2017, an offshore quake near the western tip of the Aleutians triggered a Pacific-wide tsunami warning, but luckily it produced just a six-inch local wave.

As for the Shumagin Gap, in 1788, Russian colonists then living on nearby Unga Island recorded a great quake and tsunami that wiped out coastal structures and killed many native Aleut people. The researchers say it may have originated at the Shumagin Gap, but there is no way to be sure. Rob Witter, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has scoured area coastlines for evidence of such a tsunami, but so far evidence has eluded him, he said. The potential danger “remains a puzzle here,” he said. “We know so little about the hazards of subduction zones. Every little bit of new information we can glean about how they work is valuable, including the findings in this new paper.”

The authors say that apart from Japan, such a fault structure has been well documented only off Russia’s Kuril Islands, east of the Aleutians. But, Shillington said, “We don’t have images from many places. If we were to look around the world, we would probably see a lot more.” John Miller, a retired USGS scientist who has studied the Aleutians, said that his own work suggests other segments of the arc have other threatening features that resemble both those in the Shumagin and off Japan. “The dangers of areas like these are just now being widely recognized,” he said.

Lamont seismologists have been studying earthquakes in the Aleutians since the 1960s, but early studies were conducted mainly on land. In the 1980s, the USGS collected the same type of data used in the new study, but seismic equipment now able to produce far more detailed images deep under the sea floor made this latest discovery possible, said Bécel. She and others conducted the imaging survey aboard the Marcus G. Langseth, the United States’ flagship vessel for acoustic research. Owned by the U.S. National Science Foundation, it is operated by Lamont-Doherty on behalf the nation’s universities and other research institutions.

Sun’s Core Rotates Four Times Faster Than Its Surface

The Sun’s core rotates nearly four times faster than the sun’s surface, according to new findings by an international team of astronomers. Scientists had assumed the core was rotating like a merry-go-round at about the same speed as the surface.

“The most likely explanation is that this core rotation is left over from the period when the Sun formed, some 4.6 billion years ago,” said Roger Ulrich, a UCLA professor emeritus of astronomy, who has studied the sun’s interior for more than 40 years and co-author of the study that was published today in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. “It’s a surprise, and exciting to think we might have uncovered a relic of what the Sun was like when it first formed.”

The rotation of the solar core may give a clue to how the sun formed. After the Sun formed, the solar wind likely slowed the rotation of the outer part of the Sun, he said. The rotation might also impact sunspots, which also rotate, Ulrich said. Sunspots can be enormous; a single sunspot can even be larger than the Earth.

The researchers studied surface acoustic waves in the Sun’s atmosphere, some of which penetrate to the Sun’s core, where they interact with gravity waves that have a sloshing motion similar to how water would move in a half-filled tanker truck driving on a curvy mountain road. From those observations, they detected the sloshing motions of the solar core. By carefully measuring the acoustic waves, the researchers precisely determined the time it takes an acoustic wave to travel from the surface to the center of the Sun and back again. That travel time turns out to be influenced a slight amount by the sloshing motion of the gravity waves, Ulrich said.

The researchers identified the sloshing motion and made the calculations using 16 years of observations from an instrument called GOLF (Global Oscillations at Low Frequency) on a spacecraft called SoHO (the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory)—a joint project of the European Space Agency and NASA. The method was developed by the researchers, led by astronomer Eric Fossat of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France. Patrick Boumier with France’s Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale is GOLF’s principal investigator and a co-author of the study.

The idea that the solar core could be rotating more rapidly than the surface has been considered for more than 20 years, but has never before been measured.

The core of the Sun differs from its surface in another way as well. The core has a temperature of approximately 29 million degrees Fahrenheit, which is 15.7 million Kelvin. The sun’s surface is “only” about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 5,800 Kelvin.

Ulrich worked with the GOLF science team, analyzing and interpreting the data for 15 years. Ulrich received funding from NASA for his research. The GOLF instrument was funded primarily by the European Space Agency.

SoHO was launched on Dec. 2, 1995 to study the Sun from its core to the outer corona and the solar wind; the spacecraft continues to operate.

For Under-Earth Exploration, Engineers Deepen Understanding Of Rock Stress

Measuring unobservable forces of nature is not an easy feat, but it can make the difference between life and death in the context of an earthquake, or the collapse of a coal mine or tunnel.To manage the risk of such events, researchers often rely on estimating a quantity called rock stress.

“Rock stress—the amount of pressure experienced by underground layers of rock—can only be measured indirectly because you can’t see the forces that cause it,” explains Hiroki Sone, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and geological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But instruments for estimating rock stress are difficult to use at great depths, where the temperature and pressure increase tremendously.”

Addressing this challenge, Sone and his colleagues in China and Japan have now pushed the limits of rock stress measurements that don’t require temperature-sensitive instruments to new depths, from a previous maximum of 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) to a whopping 7 kilometers (4.3 miles).

In a study published in July 2017 in Scientific Reports, the researchers used rocks sampled from a well bore of that depth to show that stress estimates obtained by the so-called anelastic strain recovery method were consistent with a visual analysis of borehole wall images, a reliable but often infeasible approach that requires a specialized scanner.

The scientists conducted their proof-of-principle study in the Tarim Basin in northwest China, an area almost two-thirds the size of Alaska that is surrounded by K2, the world’s second highest mountain after Mount Everest, and several other mountain ranges. The region is well known to historians because of its association with the Silk Road, an ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean.

Today, in addition to historians and mountain climbers, petroleum companies have taken an interest in Tarim Basin, as it contains some of the largest oil and gas resources in Central Asia. These companies want to understand the region’s geology to assess whether drilling may trigger seismic activity, given that many smaller earthquakes have occurred in the surrounding mountains.

For Sone and his colleagues, this presented a unique opportunity to advance the methodology for measuring rock stress.

“We wanted to test the reliability of the anelastic strain recovery method at up to 7 kilometers depth because its main advantage is that you only need to sample and analyze the rock itself,” Sone says. “It estimates stress indirectly by measuring how much the rock sample expands in different directions after it has been recovered.”

With that kind of depth, the recovery process—pulling a large enough rock sample out of a borehole—can take a few days, which is why the researchers were excited to prove that the method still worked.

For the first time, they measured rock stress even when sensors weren’t attached to the sample until 65 hours after coring and found that the results matched a conventional image analysis of the borehole wall, obtained with a resistivity scanner. While the visual method also worked in this case, it can be infeasible at such great depths because of the scanner’s temperature limitations.

In addition to proving the easier method’s validity at greatly increased depth, the study resolved a longstanding geological puzzle in the Tarim Basin: The rock stress in Earth’s outer shell—which consists of many large pieces of cooler rock (tectonic plates) floating on a very thick layer of hot magma—differs between the Basin’s periphery and its interior.
Other scientists had found evidence for this difference before, but the current study confirmed it.

In the interior of Tarim Basin, tectonic plates are relatively stable, even though they crash and fold up against each other in the periphery, explaining the observed seismic activity. This translates to a lower risk of earthquakes in the interior and informs a petroleum company’s decisions about the depth at which boreholes should be stabilized to minimize the risk of structural collapse.

For earth scientists, the new study is an important validation of a more practical method for estimating rock stress. “These new results give us confidence that we can use the anelastic strain recovery method at greater depths than we thought possible,” Sone says. “As long as the rock deforms the same amount in vertical and horizontal directions, this method is much easier to apply when very high temperatures and pressures in the Earth’s crust challenge the other options in our toolbox.”

Simulations Suggests Venus May Once Have Had An Ocean

A team of researchers with Université Paris-Saclay has found evidence suggesting that the planet Venus may once have had an ocean. In their paper published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the group describes entering a multitude of data into a computer simulation and running it using different parameters, showing the likelihood that Venus once had a thick cloud cover and a thin ocean.

The planet Venus today has a barren landscape and is extremely hot—likely too hot to harbor life. But the researchers with this new effort believe that at some point in the distant past, there was enough cloud cover over the planet to make surface conditions cool enough to support an ocean.

As the researchers note, Venus rotates very slowly compared to Earth—one Venus day takes approximately 116 days on Earth. This is one of the factors the researchers took into consideration as they built their model. They also added other factors such as carbon dioxide levels, heat from the sun and estimated water on the planet—along with data from prior work resulting in theories regarding how planets form. Most such theories suggest that rocky planets like Venus would have been extremely hot during their early stages due to the energy involved in their formation. The researchers assumed that was the case for Venus and attempted to recreate those early conditions in their simulation to show what might have happened as the planet cooled.

The researchers note that if early Venus had the same amount of carbon dioxide as today, it would be enough to allow for water to exist on the surface under cooler conditions—and if there were sufficient cloud cover, the simulation showed, the planet would need just 30 percent of the mass of the Earth’s oceans to form its own shallow ocean. The researchers acknowledge that the computer simulations do not prove Venus had an ocean, but instead merely suggest it was possible. To date, multiple craft have made landings on the planet’s surface (the Soviet Union’s Venera series in the 1970s and early 1980s) but none were capable of digging beneath the surface to see how much water was there, if any. If enough was found, it would strongly bolster theories regarding the possibility of an ancient ocean.

Hubble Detects Exoplanet With Glowing Water Atmosphere

Scientists have found the strongest evidence to date for a stratosphere on an enormous planet outside our solar system, with an atmosphere hot enough to boil iron.

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Exeter, made the new discovery by observing glowing water molecules in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-121b with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
In order to study the gas giant’s stratosphere – a layer of atmosphere where temperature increases with higher altitudes – scientists used spectroscopy to analyse how the planet’s brightness changed at different wavelengths of light.

Water vapour in the planet’s atmosphere, for example, behaves in predictable ways in response to different wavelengths of light, depending on the temperature of the water. At cooler temperatures, water vapour in the planet’s upper atmosphere blocks light of specific wavelengths radiating from deeper layers towards space. But at higher temperatures, the water molecules in the upper atmosphere glow at these wavelengths instead.
The phenomenon is similar to what happens with fireworks, which get their colours from chemicals emitting light. When metallic substances are heated and vaporized, their electrons move into higher energy states. Depending on the material, these electrons will emit light at specific wavelengths as they lose energy: sodium produces orange-yellow and strontium produces red in this process, for example.

The water molecules in the atmosphere of WASP-121b similarly give off radiation as they lose energy, but it is in the form of infrared light, which the human eye is unable to detect.

The research is published in leading scientific journal Nature.

“Theoretical models have suggested that stratospheres may define a special class of ultra-hot exoplanets, with important implications for the atmospheric physics and chemistry,” said Dr Tom Evans, lead author and research fellow at the University of Exeter. “When we pointed Hubble at WASP-121b, we saw glowing water molecules, implying that the planet has a strong stratosphere.”

WASP-121b, located approximately 900 light years from Earth, is a gas giant exoplanet commonly referred to as a ‘hot Jupiter’, although with a greater mass and radius than Jupiter, making it much puffier. The exoplanet orbits its host star every 1.3 days, and is around the closest distance it could be before the star’s gravity would start ripping it apart.

This close proximity also means that the top of the atmosphere is heated to a blazing hot 2,500 degrees Celsius – the temperature at which iron exists in gas rather than solid form.

In Earth’s stratosphere, ozone traps ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which raises the temperature of this layer of atmosphere. Other solar system bodies have stratospheres, too – methane is responsible for heating in the stratospheres of Jupiter and Saturn’s moon Titan, for example. In solar system planets, the change in temperature within a stratosphere is typically less than 100 degrees Celsius. However, on WASP-121b, the temperature in the stratosphere rises by 1000 Celsius.

“We’ve measured a strong rise in the temperature of WASP-121b’s atmosphere at higher altitudes, but we don’t yet know what’s causing this dramatic heating,” says Nikolay Nikolov, co-author and research fellow at the University of Exeter. “We hope to address this mystery with upcoming observations at other wavelengths.”

Vanadium oxide and titanium oxide gases are candidate heat sources, as they strongly absorb starlight at visible wavelengths, similar to ozone absorbing UV radiation. These compounds are expected to be present in only the hottest of hot Jupiters, such as WASP-121b, as high temperatures are required to keep them in the gaseous state.

Indeed, vanadium oxide and titanium oxide are commonly seen in brown dwarfs, ‘failed stars’ that have some commonalities with exoplanets.

Previous research spanning the past decade has indicated possible evidence for stratospheres on other exoplanets, but this is the first time that glowing water molecules have been detected, the clearest signal yet for an exoplanet stratosphere.

It is one of the first results to come out of a new observing program being carried out by an international team of scientists, led by Associate Professor David Sing at the University of Exeter and Dr. Mercedes Lopez-Mórales at the Smithsonian Institution. The program has been awarded 800 hours to study and compare 20 different exoplanets, representing one of the largest time allocations for a single program in the entire 27 year history of Hubble.

“This new research is the smoking gun evidence scientists have been searching for when studying hot exoplanets. We have discovered this hot Jupiter has a stratosphere, a common feature seen in most of our solar system planets.” says Professor David Sing, co-author and Associate Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Exeter.

“It’s a truly exciting find as we’re seeing dramatic differences planet-to-planet which is giving valuable clues in figuring out how planets behave under different conditions, and we’re only just scratching the surface of all the new Hubble data.”

NASA’s forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to follow up on the atmospheres of planets like WASP-121b with higher sensitivity than any telescope currently in space.

“This super-hot exoplanet is going to be a benchmark for our atmospheric models, and will be a great observational target moving into the Webb era,” said Hannah Wakeford, co-author and Research Fellow at the University of Exeter.

New Simulations Could Help In Hunt For Massive Mergers Of Neutron Stars, Black Holes

Now that scientists can detect the wiggly distortions in space-time created by the merger of massive black holes, they are setting their sights on the dynamics and aftermath of other cosmic duos that unify in catastrophic collisions.

Working with an international team, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed new computer models to explore what happens when a black hole joins with a neutron star – the superdense remnant of an exploded star.

Using supercomputers to rip open neutron stars

The simulations, carried out in part at Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), are intended to help detectors home in on the gravitational-wave signals. Telescopes, too, can search for the brilliant bursts of gamma-rays and the glow of the radioactive matter that these exotic events can spew into surrounding space.

In separate papers published in a special edition of the scientific journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, Berkeley Lab and other researchers present the results of detailed simulations.

One of the studies models the first milliseconds (thousandths of a second) in the merger of a black hole and neutron star, and the other details separate simulations that model the formation of a disk of material formed within seconds of the merger, and of the evolution of matter that is ejected in the merger.

That ejected matter likely includes gold and platinum and a range of radioactive elements that are heavier than iron.

Any new information scientists can gather about how neutron stars rip apart in these mergers can help to unlock their secrets, as their inner structure and their likely role in seeding the universe with heavy elements are still shrouded in mystery.

“We are steadily adding more realistic physics to the simulations,” said – Foucart, who served as a lead author for one of the studies as a postdoctoral researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Nuclear Science Division.

“But we still don’t know what’s happening inside neutron stars. The complicated physics that we need to model make the simulations very computationally intensive.”

Finding signs of a black hole-neutron star merger

Foucart, who will soon be an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire, added, “We are trying to move more toward actually making models of the gravitational-wave signals produced by these mergers,” which create a rippling in space-time that researchers hope can be detected with improvements in the sensitivity of experiments including Advanced LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

In February 2016, LIGO scientists confirmed the first detection of a gravitational wave, believed to be generated by the merger of two black holes, each with masses about 30 times larger than the Sun.

The signals of a neutron star merging with black holes or another neutron star are expected to generate gravitational waves that are slightly weaker but similar to those of black hole-black hole mergers, Foucart said.
Radioactive ‘waste’ in space

Daniel Kasen, a scientist in the Nuclear Science Division at Berkeley Lab and associate professor of physics and astronomy at UC Berkeley who participated in the research, said that inside neutron stars “there may be exotic states of matter unlike anything realized anywhere else in the universe.”

In some computer simulations the neutron stars were swallowed whole by the black hole, while in others there was a fraction of matter coughed up into space. This ejected matter is estimated to range up to about one-tenth of the mass of the Sun.

While much of the matter gets sucked into the larger black hole that forms from the merger, “the material that gets flung out eventually turns into a kind of radioactive ‘waste,'” he said. “You can see the radioactive glow of that material for a period of days or weeks, from more than a hundred million light years away.” Scientists refer to this observable radioactive glow as a “kilonova.”

The simulations use different sets of calculations to help scientists visualize how matter escapes from these mergers. By modeling the speed, trajectory, amount and type of matter, and even the color of the light it gives off, astrophysicists can learn how to track down actual events.

The weird world of neutron stars

The size range of neutron stars is set by the ultimate limit on how densely matter can be compacted, and neutron stars are among the most superdense objects we know about in the universe.

Neutron stars have been observed to have masses up to at least two times that of our sun but measure only about 12 miles in diameter, on average, while our own sun has a diameter of about 865,000 miles. At large enough masses, perhaps about three times the mass of the sun, scientists expect that neutron stars must collapse to form black holes.

A cubic inch of matter from a neutron star is estimated to weigh up to 10 billion tons. As their name suggests, neutron stars are thought to be composed largely of the neutrally charged subatomic particles called neutrons, and some models expect them to contain long strands of matter – known as “nuclear pasta” – formed by atomic nuclei that bind together.

Neutron stars are also expected to be almost perfectly spherical, with a rigid and incredibly smooth crust and an ultrapowerful magnetic field. They can spin at a rate of about 43,000 revolutions per minute (RPMs), or about five times faster than a NASCAR race car engine’s RPMs.

The aftermath of neutron star mergers

The researchers’ simulations showed that the radioactive matter that first escapes the black hole mergers may be traveling at speeds of about 20,000 to 60,000 miles per second, or up to about one-third the speed of light, as it is swung away in a long “tidal tail.”

“This would be strange material that is loaded with neutrons,” Kasen said. “As that expanding material cools and decompresses, the particles may be able to combine to build up into the heaviest elements.” This latest research shows how scientists might find these bright bundles of heavy elements.

“If we can follow up LIGO detections with telescopes and catch a radioactive glow, we may finally witness the birthplace of the heaviest elements in the universe,” he said. “That would answer one of the longest-standing questions in astrophysics.”

Most of the matter in a black hole-neutron star merger is expected to be sucked up by the black hole within a millisecond of the merger, and other matter that is not flung away in the merger is likely to form an extremely dense, thin, donut-shaped halo of matter.

The thin, hot disk of matter that is bound by the black hole is expected to form within about 10 milliseconds of the merger, and to be concentrated within about 15 to 70 miles of it, the simulations showed. This first 10 milliseconds appears to be key in the long-term evolution of these disks.

Over timescales ranging from tens of milliseconds to several seconds, the hot disk spreads out and launches more matter into space. “A number of physical processes – from magnetic fields to particle interactions and nuclear reactions – combine in complex ways to drive the evolution of the disk,” said Rodrigo Fernández, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Alberta in Canada who led one of the studies.

Simulations carried out on NERSC’s Edison supercomputer were crucial in understanding how the disk ejects matter and in providing clues for how to observe this matter, said Fernández, a former UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher.

What’s next?

Eventually, it may be possible for astronomers scanning the night sky to find the “needle in a haystack” of radioactive kilonovae from neutron star mergers that had been missed in the LIGO data, Kasen said.

“With improved models, we are better able to tell the observers exactly which flashes of light are the signals they are looking for,” he said. Kasen is also working to build increasingly sophisticated models of neutron star mergers and supernovae through his involvement in the DOE Exascale Computing Project.

As the sensitivity of gravitational-wave detectors improves, Foucart said, it may be possible to detect a continuous signal produced by even a tiny bump on the surface of a neutron star, for example, or signals from theorized one-dimensional objects known as cosmic strings.

“This could also allow us to observe events that we have not even imagined,” he said.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: New Research Shows Quake-Causing Cracks on Pacific Sea Floor

New research published in the journal ‘Science Advances’, has focused their study off the west coast of North America giving seismologists a better understanding of what one scientist describes as “the single greatest geophysical hazard to the continental United States”.

Zach Eilon, a geophysicist at the University of California Santa Barbara, has developed a new method that uses an array of scientific instruments spread across the sea floor to measure shock waves that travel through the planet’s crust. “Because we think this particular phenomenon is strongly related to temperature and to molten rock beneath the Earth, this is a technique that can be applied to volcanoes to get a better sense of their plumbing system,” says Eilon.

Eilon’s research targets the Juan de Fuca plate, which runs several hundred kilometers off the coast between southern British Columbia and northern California and is the youngest and smallest of the planet’s 13 major tectonic plates. The collision zone in this region has the potential to generate massive quakes and destructive tsunamis, which occur when the plates overcome friction and slip past one another, quickly displacing huge amounts of water.

His data suggest the interior of the Juan de Fuca plate is cooler than previously believed, meaning the edge that is being pushed westward below the North American plate is able to bring with it more water. The water acts as a lubricant and increases the likelihood of the slipping that leads to a quake.

Geoff Abers, an earth-sciences professor at Cornell University who co-authored the paper with Eilon, said improvements in sea-floor technology and the sheer number of sensors that were deployed make this project the first time researchers have been able to study an entire tectonic plate in the ocean. “We’re not directly looking at the just earthquake cycles, but we’re looking at the broader, theoretical framework for how the Earth works and getting a much better handle on that,” Abers said.

Thank you for your continued support. We’re now about half way there.