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Delineating Deep Faults
Most large, damaging earthquakes initiate in Earth's crust where friction and brittle fracture control the release of energy. Strong earthquakes can occur in the mantle too, but their rupture dynamics are difficult to determine because higher temperatures and pressures play a more important role. Ye et al. (p. 1380) analyzed seismic P waves generated by the 2013 Mw 8.3 Sea of Okhotsk earthquake—the largest deep earthquake recorded to date—and its associated aftershocks. The earthquake ruptured along a fault over 180-kilometer-long and structural heterogeneity resulted in a massive release of stress from the subducting slab. In a set of complementary laboratory deformation experiments, Schubnel et al. (p. 1377) simulated the nucleation of acoustic emission events that resemble deep earthquakes. These events are caused by an instantaneous phase transition from olivine to spinel, which would occur at the same depth and result in large stress releases observed for other deep earthquakes.
Phase transformations of metastable olivine might trigger deep-focus earthquakes (400 to 700 kilometers) in cold subducting lithosphere. To explore the feasibility of this mechanism, we performed laboratory deformation experiments on germanium olivine (Mg2GeO4) under differential stress at high pressure (P = 2 to 5 gigapascals) and within a narrow temperature range (T = 1000 to 1250 kelvin). We found that fractures nucleate at the onset of the olivine-to-spinel transition. These fractures propagate dynamically (at a nonnegligible fraction of the shear wave velocity) so that intense acoustic emissions are generated. Similar to deep-focus earthquakes, these acoustic emissions arise from pure shear sources and obey the Gutenberg-Richter law without following Omori’s law. Microstructural observations prove that dynamic weakening likely involves superplasticity of the nanocrystalline spinel reaction product at seismic strain rates.