Predicting Earthquakes: Ancient Subduction Zone Rocks Provide Key Insights, Say Penn State and Brown University Researchers

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Researchers from Penn State and Brown University have made groundbreaking discoveries about the behavior of tectonic plates in subduction zones. These zones are where the world’s most powerful earthquakes occur, and understanding the processes that occur between these earthquakes could help scientists make more accurate predictions about when and where they will happen.

The team, led by Penn State professor Donald Fisher, has found that rocks buried deep in ancient subduction zones could hold the key to understanding the build-up of stress in the Earth’s crust. Their research shows that pressure solution, a process where quartz grains dissolve at stressed contacts and then precipitate in cracks, is a fundamental process during the years between major earthquakes.

Studying pressure solution in the laboratory is challenging, as it typically occurs very slowly over thousands to millions of years. To overcome this, the researchers examined rocks that had once experienced tectonic pressures and were later brought to the surface by geological processes. These rocks showed evidence of pressure solution in the form of microscopic shears and textures caused by strain.

By creating a more detailed model that takes into account factors like grain size and solubility, the researchers were able to predict strain rates in the seismogenic layer, where most earthquakes occur. They applied this model to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an active fault that runs from northern California to Canada. The results of their model matched crustal movements based on satellite observations, indicating the potential for future earthquakes in the region.

The implications of this research are significant, as it could lead to better earthquake predictions in high-risk areas like the Pacific Northwest. The National Science Foundation supported this work, highlighting the importance of further research in this area. This study has captured the attention of scientists and the public alike, as it has the potential to save lives and prevent future natural disasters.

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