Swarms of repeating stick-slip icequakes triggered by snow loading at Mount Rainier volcano

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Abstract

We have detected over 150,000 small (M < 1) low-frequency (~1–5 Hz) repeating earthquakes over the past decade at Mount Rainier volcano, most of which were previously undetected. They are located high (>3000 m) on the glacier-covered edifice and occur primarily in weeklong to monthlong swarms composed of simultaneous distinct families of events. Each family contains up to thousands of earthquakes repeating at regular intervals as often as every few minutes. Mixed polarity first motions, a linear relationship between recurrence interval and event size, and strong correlation between swarm activity and snowfall suggest the source is stick-slip basal sliding of glaciers. The sudden added weight of snow during winter storms triggers a temporary change from smooth aseismic sliding to seismic stick-slip sliding in locations where basal conditions are favorable to frictional instability. Coda wave interferometry shows that source locations migrate over time at glacial speeds, starting out fast and slowing down over time, indicating a sudden increase in sliding velocity triggers the transition to stick-slip sliding. We propose a hypothesis that this increase is caused by the redistribution of basal fluids rather than direct loading because of a 1–2 day lag between snow loading and earthquake activity. This behavior is specific to winter months because it requires the inefficient drainage of a distributed subglacial drainage system. Identification of the source of these frequent signals offers a view of basal glacier processes, discriminates against alarming volcanic noises, documents short-term effects of weather on the cryosphere, and has implications for repeating earthquakes, in general.

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