Seismology and the new global tectonics


  • Bryan Isacks,

  • Jack Oliver,

  • Lynn R. Sykes


A comprehensive study of the observations of seismology provides widely based strong support for the new global tectonics which is founded on the hypotheses of continental drift, sea-floor spreading, transform faults, and underthrusting of the lithosphere at island arcs. Although further developments will be required to explain certain part of the seismological data, at present within the entire field of seismology there appear to be no serious obstacles to the new tectonics. Seismic phenomena are generally explained as the result of interactions and other processes at or near the edges of a few large mobile plates of lithosphere that spread apart at the ocean ridges where new surficial materials arise, slide past one another along the large strike-slip faults, and converge at the island arcs and arc-like structures where surficial materials descend. Study of world seismicity shows that most earthquakes are confined to narrow continuous belts that bound large stable areas. In the zones of divergence and strike-slip motion, the activity is moderate and shallow and consistent with the transform fault hypothesis; in the zones of convergence, activity is normally at shallow depths and includes intermediate and deep shocks that grossly define the present configuration of the down-going slabs of lithosphere. Seismic data on focal mechanisms give the relative direction of motion of adjoining plates of lithosphere throughout the active belts. The focal mechanisms of about a hundred widely distributed shocks give relative motions that agree remarkably well with Le Pichon's simplified model in which relative motions of six large, rigid blocks of lithosphere covering the entire earth were determined from magnetic and topographic data associated with the zones of divergence. In the zones of convergence the seismic data provide the only geophysical information on such movements.

Two principal types of mechanisms are found for shallow earthquakes in island arcs: The extremely active zone of seismicity under the inner margin of the ocean trench is characterized by a predominance of thrust faulting, which is interpreted as the relative motion of two converging plates of lithosphere; a less active zone in the trench and on the outer wall of the trench is characterized by normal faulting and is thought to be a surficial manifestation of the abrupt bending of the down-going slab of lithosphere. Graben-like structures along the outer walls of trenches may provide a mechanism for including and transporting sediments to depth in quantities that may be very significant petrologically. Large volumes of sediments beneath the inner slopes of many trenches may correspond, at least in part, to sediments scraped from the crust and deformed in the thrusting.

Simple underthrusting typical of the main zone of shallow earthquakes in island arcs does not, in general, persist at great depth. The most striking regularity in the mechanisms of intermediate and deep earthquakes in several arcs is the tendency of the compressional axis to parallel the local dip of the seismic zone. These events appear to reflect stresses in the relatively strong slab of down-going lithosphere, whereas shearing deformations parallel to the motion of the slab are presumably accommodated by flow or creep in the adjoining ductile parts of the mantle. Several different methods yield average rates of underthrusting as high as 5 to 15 cm/yr for some of the more active arcs. These rates suggest that temperatures low enough to permit dehydration of hydrous minerals and hence shear fracture may persist even to depths of 700 km. The thickness of the seismic zone in a part of the Tonga arc where very precise hypocentral locations are available is less than about 20 km for a wide range of depths. Lateral variations in thickness of the lithosphere seem to occur, and in some areas the lithosphere may not include a significant thickness of the uppermost mantle.

The lengths of the deep seismic zones appear to be a measure of the amount of under thrusting during about the last 10 m.y. Hence, these lengths constitute another ‘yardstick’ for investigations of global tectonics. The presence of volcanism, the generation of many tsunamis (seismic sea waves), and the frequency of occurrence of large earthquakes also seem to be related to underthrusting or rates of underthrusting in island arcs. Many island arcs exhibit a secondary maximum in activity which varies considerably in depth among the various arcs. These depths appear, however, to correlate with the rate of underthrusting, and the deep maxima appear to be located near the leading (bottom) part of the down-going slab. In some cases the down-going plates appear to be contorted, possibly because they are encountering a more resistant layer in the mantle. The interaction of plates of lithosphere appears to be more complex when all the plates involved are continents or pieces of continents than when at least one plate is an oceanic plate. The new global tectonics suggests new approaches to a variety of topics in seismology including earthquake prediction, the detection and accurate location of seismic events, and the general problem of earth structure.