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Cover Story

Giant Grooves Discovered on an Earthquake Fault Offshore Costa Rica

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Imagine dragging your outstretched fingers through wet beach sand, leaving long grooves behind. Scientists recently discovered similar but enormous grooves buried under the seafloor near Costa Rica. The detailed three-dimensional data they used to uncover these corrugations can help them better understand large subduction zone earthquakes and related tsunamis worldwide.

3D computer image showing corrugations, or giant grooves, beneath the seafloor where the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates grind past each other
Above: 3D computer image showing corrugations, or giant grooves, beneath the seafloor where the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates grind past each other. Scientists stretched the image to highlight the grooves. Image credit: Jared Kluesner, USGS, and Joel Edwards, USGS and UC Santa Cruz. [larger version]

In an article published online by Nature Geoscience (see “Corrugated mega-thrust revealed offshore from Costa Rica”), researchers reported finding corrugations, or giant grooves, kilometers long, hundreds of meters wide, and tens of meters high, between the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates that form part of the Costa Rica subduction zone. Using 3D seismic imaging techniques developed by the oil industry, combined with state-of-the-art computer visualization software, scientists from the USGS, University of California Santa Cruz, University of Texas Austin, and McGill University produced an unprecedented, detailed view of the megathrust fault formed by these colliding and sliding plates.

“Subduction zones are hugely important, both because of the hazards they pose and because it’s where the earth destroys crust,” said lead author Joel Edwards, a USGS student contractor pursuing a Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz. “And megathrust faults, within subduction zones, host the largest earthquakes on the planet. They are more likely to generate tsunamis, which as we saw from Japan and Sumatra, can be a bigger hazard than earthquake shaking.” In the United States, subduction zones with megathrust faults exist offshore of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Graphic map with a yellow star marking the study area in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Costa Rica
Above: A yellow star marks the study area in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Costa Rica. [larger version]

“Gently rolling hills and valleys that are parallel and stretch for miles.” That’s how Edwards described the scene if you could stand on the fault surface looking across the grooves. “Corrugations are a great record of how blocks are sliding past each other along a fault,” he added. Scientists have found similar grooves at the base of fast moving glaciers and other faults, but not on megathrust faults.

Computer image of bedrock grooves derived from 3D seismic imaging offshore of Costa Rica
Above: Computer image of bedrock grooves (corrugations) derived from 3D seismic imaging offshore of Costa Rica. It shows the megathrust fault surface of the Cocos Plate diving beneath the Caribbean Plate, with the upper plate virtually removed. Some of the fault surface has long, straight corrugations; some appears more jumbled. Researchers stretched the image slightly to make the grooves easier to see. The view is roughly from Costa Rica looking offshore. Image credit: USGS and UC Santa Cruz. [larger version]

This unique, highly-detailed image revealed other buried secrets. Small changes in groove direction record a history of shifts in plate movement. The rougher areas indicate where the megathrust jumped to form a new fault, and hasn’t had enough time to smooth the surface. Other details in the 3D seismic imaging data imply that the grooves may channel fluids that could lubricate the fault and affect earthquake size and frequency.

Petroleum companies developed 3D seismic imaging several decades ago to help find oil and gas in areas with complex geology. For offshore 3D exploration, ships tow several streamers, kilometers long, containing hundreds of waterproof microphones floating just beneath the waves. These hydrophones record sound bounced off the rock layers below the seafloor. Extensive computer processing and advanced visualization techniques help researchers uncover hidden geologic details in three dimensions.

Diagram of the Cocos Plate (purple) in relation to nearby tectonic plates
Above: Diagram of the Cocos Plate (purple) in relation to nearby tectonic plates. The yellow star indicates the study area. Source: Modified from Alataristarion [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. [larger version]

“It’s like the Hubble Telescope for geologists,” said co-author Jared Kluesner, a USGS geophysicist. “But collecting and processing this type of data can be really expensive and time consuming.” For this study, data collected in 2011 took several years to analyze and visualize. Kluesner and study co-author professor emeritus Eli Silver of UC Santa Cruz are the Ph.D. advisors of Edwards.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to image the megathrust surface itself in such detail,” said Janet Watt, a USGS geophysicist, who was not involved with the study. “I think there could be a lot more papers to come from this.”

Now that the technique has proven to be so valuable, USGS scientists and academic partners are eager to use 3D seismic imaging closer to home: the Cascadia subduction zone just offshore of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. In February 2018, researchers met to plan a cooperative Cascadia research program, which could lead to a new 3D seismic survey and improved knowledge of the hazards.

“Cascadia has a history of large earthquakes and tsunamis,” said Kluesner, “yet we still don’t know that much about the megathrust there. It’s an obvious choice.”

The article, titled “Corrugated megathrust revealed offshore from Costa Rica,” is available from Nature Geoscience at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0061-4. The National Science Foundation funded data collection.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Expedition along a Hazardous, Fast-Moving Fault off Southeast Alaska—the Queen Charlotte-Fairweather Fault
Jan. 2018
Investigating the Offshore Queen Charlotte-Fairweather Fault System in Southeastern Alaska
Dec. 2015 / Jan. 2016
High-Resolution Multibeam Mapping of Mid-Atlantic Canyons to Assess Tsunami Hazards
Sept. / Oct. 2011

Related Websites
Corrugated mega-thrust revealed offshore from Costa Rica
Nature Geoscience
Acoustic imaging reveals hidden features of megathrust fault off Costa Rica
UC Santa Cruz news release
U.S. West Coast and Alaska Marine Geohazards project

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Cover Story Giant Grooves Discovered on an Earthquake Fault Offshore Costa Rica

News Brief
News Briefs

Pacific Missile Tracking Site Could Be Unusable Soon Due to Climate Change

A Tale of Two Tsunamis—Mexico 2017 and Alaska 2018

The USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Data Catalog

Field Work
Recent Fieldwork

Staff amd Center News
Scientists, Volunteers Rescue Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

New Study Links Salinity Changes to Changes in Rainfall Patterns

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