How tides can trigger earthquakes decoded

Years ago, scientists realised that earthquakes along mid-ocean ridges -- underwater mountain ranges at the edges of the tectonic plates -- are linked with the tides. (Image for representation)

Scientists on Thursday unveiled why there is an uptick in earthquakes during low tides.

Years ago, scientists realised that earthquakes along mid-ocean ridges -- underwater mountain ranges at the edges of the tectonic plates -- are linked with the tides.

"Everyone was sort of stumped, because according to conventional theory, those earthquakes should occur at high tides," said Christopher Scholz, a seismologist at Columbia University in the US.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, uncovered the mechanism for this seeming paradox, and it comes down to the magma below the mid-ocean ridges.

"It's the magma chamber breathing, expanding and contracting due to the tides, that's making the faults move," said Scholz, who co-led the study along with graduate student Yen Joe Tan.

The low tide correlation is surprising because of the way the mid-ocean fault moves.

Scholz described the fault as a tilted plane that separates two blocks of earth. During movement, the upper block slides down with respect to the lower one.

Scientists expected that at high tides, when there is more water sitting on top of the fault, it would push the upper block down and cause the earthquakes.

However, that is not what happens. Instead, the fault slips down during low tide, when forces are actually pulling upwards -- "which is the opposite of what you would expect," said Scholz.

To get to the bottom the mystery, researchers, including Fabien Albino from the University of Bristol in the UK, studied the Axial Volcano along the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean.

Since the volcano erupts every ten years or so, scientists have set up dense networks of ocean bottom instruments to monitor it.

The team used the data from those instruments to model and explore different ways the low tides could be causing the tremors.

it came down to a component that no one else had considered before: the volcano's magma chamber, a soft, pressurised pocket below the surface, researchers said.

They realised that when the tide is low, there is less water sitting on top of the chamber, so it expands.

As it puffs up, it strains the rocks around it, forcing the lower block to slide up the fault, and causing earthquakes in the process.

The tidal earthquakes in this region are "so sensitive that we can see details in the response that nobody could ever see before," said Scholz.

When the team charted the earthquake rate versus the stress on the fault, they realised that even the tiniest stress could trigger an earthquake.

The tidal data helped to calibrate this effect, but the triggering stress could be caused by anything -- such as the seismic waves from another earthquake, or fracking wastewater pumped into the ground.

A small stress over a small area is not going to cause a devastating earthquake, and the exact amount of stress needed varies from place to place, researchers said.

"Our point is there is no intrinsic stress that has to be exceeded to cause an earthquake. There isn't any rule of thumb," said Scholz.

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