Birth of a plate boundary rocks the planet

English: Historical seismicity across the Sund...
Historical seismicity across the Sunda trench(credit: Wikipedia)

Few people will fail to remember the Indian Ocean tsunamis of 26 December 2004 because of their quarter-million death toll. The earthquake responsible for them resulted from thrusting movements on the subduction zone where part of the India-Australia plate descends beneath Sumatra. There have been some equally large but far less devastating events and many lesser earthquakes in the same region since. Some have been on the massive Wadati-Benioff zone but many, including two with magnitudes >8 in April 2012, have occurred well off the known plate boundary. Oddly, those two had strike-slip motions and were the largest such events since seismic records have been kept. Such motions where masses of lithosphere move past one another laterally can be devastating on land, yet offshore ones rarely cause tsunamis, for a simple reason: they neither lift nor drop parts of the ocean floor. So, to the world at large, both events went unreported.

To geophysicists, however, they were revealing oddities, for there is no bathymetric sign of an active sea-floor strike-slip fault. But there is a series of linear gravity anomalies running roughly N-S thought to represent transform faults that were thought to have shut down about 45 Ma ago (Delescluse, M. et al. 2012. April 2012 intra-oceanic seismicity off Sumatra boosted by the Banda-Aceh megathrust. Nature (on-line 27 September issue) doi:10.1038/nature11520). Examining the post-December 2004 seismic record of the area the authors noted a flurry of lesser events, mostly in the vicinity of the long dead fracture zones. Their analysis leads them to suggest not only that the Banda-Aceh earthquake and others along the Sumatran subduction zone reactivated the old strike-slip faults but that differences in the motion of the India-Australia plate continually stress the lithosphere. Indian continental crust is resisting subduction beneath the Himalaya thereby slowing plate movement in its wake. Ocean lithosphere north of Australia slides more easily down the subduction zone, so its northward motion is substantially faster, creating a torque in the region affected by the strike-slip motions. Ultimately, it is thought, this will split the plate into separate Indian and Australian plates.

Another surprising outcome of this complex seismic linkage in the far-east of the Indian Ocean is that the April strike-slip earthquake set the Earth ringing. For six days afterwards there was a five-fold increase in events of magnitudes greater than 5.5 more than 1500 km away, including some of around magnitude 7.0 (Polliitz, F.F. et al. 2012. The 11 April 2012 east Indian Ocean earthquake triggered large aftershocks worldwide. Nature (on-line 27 September issue) doi:10.1038/nature11504). Although distant minor shocks often follow large earthquakes, this is the first time that a swarm of magnitude 5.5 and greater has been noticed.

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