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Press Release | Argonne National Laboratory

Scientists push closer to understanding mystery of deep earthquakes

LEMONT, Ill. – Scientists broke new ground in the study of deep earthquakes, a poorly understood phenomenon that occurs where the oceanic lithosphere, driven by tectonics, plunges under continental plates – examples are off the coasts of the western United States, Russia and Japan.

This research is a large step toward replicating the full power of these earthquakes to learn what sets them off and how they unleash their violence. It was made possible only by the construction of a one-of-a-kind X-ray facility that can replicate high-pressure and high-temperature while allowing scientists to peer deep into material to trace the propagation of cracks and shock waves.

We are capturing the physics of deep earthquakes,” said Yanbin Wang, a senior scientist at the University of Chicago who helps run the X-ray facility where the research occurred. Our experiments show that, for the first time, laboratory-triggered brittle failures during the olivine-spinel (mineral) phase transformation has many similar features to deep earthquakes.”

Wang and a team of scientists from Illinois, California and France simulated deep earthquakes at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory by using pressure of 5 gigapascals, more than double the previous studies of 2 GPa. For comparison, pressure of 5 GPa is 49,000 times the pressure at sea level.

At this pressure, rock should be squeezed too tight to rupture and erupt into violent earthquakes. But it does. And that has puzzled scientists since the phenomenon of deep earthquakes was discovered nearly 100 years ago. Interest spiked with the May 24 eruption in the waters near Russia of the world’s strongest deep earthquake – roughly five times the power of the great San Francisco quake of 1906.

These deep earthquakes occur in older and colder areas of the oceanic plate that gets pushed into the earth’s mantle. It has been speculated that the earthquakes are triggered when a mineral common in the upper mantle,  olivine, undergoes a phase transformation that weakens the whole rock temporarily, causing it to fail.

Our current goal is to understand why and how deep earthquakes happen. We are not at a stage to predict them yet; it is still a long way to go,” Wang said. 

The work was conducted at the GeoSoilEnviroCARS beamline operated by the University of Chicago at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source.

From left: Harry Green, Fabrice Brunet, Nadege Hilairet, Alex Schubnel, Yanbin Wang (standing) and Julien Gasc. Image courtesy GSECARS.

GSECARS is the only beamline in the world that has the combined capabilities of in-situ X-ray diffraction and imaging, controlled deformation, in terms of stress, strain and strain rate, at high pressure and temperature, and acoustic emission detection,” Wang said. “ It took us several years to reach this technical capability.”

This new technology is a dream come true for the paper’s coauthor, geologist Harry Green, a distinguished professor of the graduate division at the University of California, Riverside.

More than 20 years ago, he and colleagues discovered a high-pressure failure mechanism that they proposed then was the long-sought mechanism of very deep earthquakes (earthquakes occurring at more than 400 km depth). The result was controversial because seismologists could not find a seismic signal in the earth that could confirm the results.

Seismologists have now found the critical evidence. Indeed, beneath Japan, they have even imaged the tell-tale evidence and showed that it coincides with the locations of deep earthquakes.

In the Sept. 20 issue of the journal Science, Green and colleagues explained how to simulate these earthquakes in a paper titled Deep-Focus Earthquake Analogs Recorded at High Pressure and Temperature in the Laboratory”.

We confirmed essentially all aspects of our earlier experimental work and extended the conditions to significantly higher pressure,” Green said.  What is crucial, however, is that these experiments are accomplished in a new type of apparatus that allows us to view and analyze specimens using synchrotron X-rays in the premier laboratory in the world for this kind of experiment — the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.”

The ability to do such experiments has now allowed scientists like Green to simulate the appropriate conditions within the earth and record and analyze the earthquakes” in their small samples in real time, thus providing the strongest evidence yet that this is the mechanism by which earthquakes happen at hundreds of kilometers depth.

The origin of deep earthquakes fundamentally differs from that of shallow earthquakes (earthquakes occurring at less than 50 km depth). In the case of shallow earthquakes, theories of rock fracture rely on the properties of coalescing cracks and friction.

Olivine crystal of a sample used to simulate deep earthquakes. The olivine contains small crystals of pyroxene within it that have been cut by nanofaults.” The numbers each show the parts of a pyroxene crystal that has been cut and displaced along a nanofault.” Image courtesy Green Lab, UC Riverside.

But as pressure and temperature increase with depth, intracrystalline plasticity dominates the deformation regime so that rocks yield by creep or flow rather than by the kind of brittle fracturing we see at smaller depths,” Green explained.  Moreover, at depths of more than 400 kilometers, the mineral olivine is no longer stable and undergoes a transformation resulting in spinel, a mineral of higher density.”

The research team focused on the role that phase transformations of olivine might play in triggering deep earthquakes.  They performed laboratory deformation experiments on olivine at high pressure and found the earthquakes” only within a narrow temperature range that simulates conditions where the real earthquakes occur in earth.

Using synchrotron X-rays to aid our observations, we found that fractures nucleate at the onset of the olivine to spinel transition,” Green said. Further, these fractures propagate dynamically so that intense acoustic emissions are generated. These phase transitions in olivine, we argue in our research paper, provide an attractive mechanism for how very deep earthquakes take place.”

Our next goal is to study the real’ material, the silicate olivine (Mg,Fe)2SiO4, which requires much higher pressures,” Wang said.

The research was funded by grants from the Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers and L’Agence Nationale de la Recherche and the National Science Foundation. Use of the Advanced Photon Source was funded by U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

The authors of the study were Alexandre Schubnel at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, France; Fabrice Brunet at the Université de Grenoble, France; Julian Gasc and Wang at the University of Chicago; Nadège Hilairet at the University of Chicago and UMET, CNRS - Université Lille 1;  and Green of UC Riverside.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory is one of five national synchrotron radiation light sources supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science to carry out applied and basic research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic, and molecular levels, provide the foundations for new energy technologies, and support DOE missions in energy, environment, and national security. To learn more about the Office of Science X-ray user facilities, visit the Office of Science website.


The largest deep earthquake ever recorded had a magnitude of 8.3 and occurred at a depth of 379 miles in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia in May. The previous record was held by a 1994 quake in Boliva of a magnitude of 8.2 that occurred 392 miles underground.