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.

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