My research focuses on the physics of earthquakes. This is accomplished through detailed studies of fault structure and the signatures of seismic slip left from frictional heating during an earthquake (paleoseismic indicators) as well as through laboratory experiments designed to measure the frictional behavior of geologic materials at a range of crustal deformation conditions.
Biomarker Thermal Maturity as a Paleoseismic Indicator
The first part of my thesis focuses on the shallow portion of the seismogenic zone at the Japan Trench where the 2011 Mw9.1 Tohoku-Oki earthquake slipped to the surface and caused a large tsunami, leading to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A year after the earthquake, an ocean drilling expedition sampled the fault zone that slipped during the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. I have used trace element geochemistry to develop a detailed stratigraphy of the plate boundary fault zone, which gives insight into the distribution of deformation in this region. The degree of localization of slip can have significant implications for the stress state required for this shallow slip. I have also developed a biomarker thermal maturity indicator (using alkenones and n-alkanes) to determine whether faults in the décollement region have experienced a significant temperature rise (inferred to be the result of frictional heating). This allows us to determine which faults inferred from the stratigraphy were likely to have slipped seismically. Through a series of hydrous pyrolysis experiments, I constrain the kinetics of the biomarker thermal maturation to estimate the temperature rise on these seismic faults. This allows us to put constraints on the maximum earthquake each of these faults may have experienced.
Faulted material at the bottom of the JFAST core. This fault was thought to be a depositional unconformity. However, trace element stratigraphy which implies a significant age gap in this section of the core. In addition, biomarkers measured on surrounding samples indicate significant heating at this location. These two lines of evidence both suggest a significant fault here, thought to line up with the layer of crushed material between the green-ish mudstone (left) and the darker pelagic clay (right).
Frictional behavior of sedimentary inputs to subduction zones
Carbonate material tends to begin deforming plastically at shallower conditions (lower pressure and temperature) than silicate rock. However, carbonate-rich sediment has been observed to demonstrate unstable slip behavior over a wider range of conditions than more clay-rich sediment. I am investigating the deformation mechanisms that could be responsible for this enhanced seismic potential.
To do this, I am measuring the frictional behavior of subducting sediments with varying amounts of carbonate, a significant input to the sedimentary budget of subduction zones. For example, the Pacific plate approaching the Hikurangi Trench (the subduction zone east of the North Island of New Zealand) has a thick layer of carbonate-rich sediment overlaying it. This subduction zone exhibits a type of seismic behavior known as slow slip, which normally is seen in the deeper parts of the seismogenic zone, occurring all the way to the surface. While many ideas have been proposed to explain this unusual behavior, one important aspect to consider is the mechanical behavior of the material in the faults here.
I will continue to investigate this question through friction experiments on samples recovered during IODP Expedition 375.