Research ArticleGEOPHYSICS

A laboratory nanoseismological study on deep-focus earthquake micromechanics

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Science Advances  21 Jul 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 7, e1601896
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601896


Global earthquake occurring rate displays an exponential decay down to ~300 km and then peaks around 550 to 600 km before terminating abruptly near 700 km. How fractures initiate, nucleate, and propagate at these depths remains one of the greatest puzzles in earth science, as increasing pressure inhibits fracture propagation. We report nanoseismological analysis on high-resolution acoustic emission (AE) records obtained during ruptures triggered by partial transformation from olivine to spinel in Mg2GeO4, an analog to the dominant mineral (Mg,Fe)2SiO4 olivine in the upper mantle, using state-of-the-art seismological techniques, in the laboratory. AEs’ focal mechanisms, as well as their distribution in both space and time during deformation, are carefully analyzed. Microstructure analysis shows that AEs are produced by the dynamic propagation of shear bands consisting of nanograined spinel. These nanoshear bands have a near constant thickness (~100 nm) but varying lengths and self-organize during deformation. This precursory seismic process leads to ultimate macroscopic failure of the samples. Several source parameters of AE events were extracted from the recorded waveforms, allowing close tracking of event initiation, clustering, and propagation throughout the deformation/transformation process. AEs follow the Gutenberg-Richter statistics with a well-defined b value of 1.5 over three orders of moment magnitudes, suggesting that laboratory failure processes are self-affine. The seismic relation between magnitude and rupture area correctly predicts AE magnitude at millimeter scales. A rupture propagation model based on strain localization theory is proposed. Future numerical analyses may help resolve scaling issues between laboratory AE events and deep-focus earthquakes.

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