NEW RESEARCH helps to provide a clearer picture of how seismic swarms are triggered and gives a better means of assessing the danger level for people living in tectonically active regions where earthquake swarms might occur.

New insight

It was believed until recently that earthquake swarms often can be observed near a volcano such as Mount St. Helens in Washington State or in a geothermal region such as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. However, it is now established that such swarms can occur at any place that is seismically active.The research was led by a University of Washington seismologist."In our research we saw swarms everywhere and we could see the broad characteristics of how they behaved," said John Vidale, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network. Vidale and two colleagues, Katie Boyle and Peter Shearer, examined data from 83 Japanese earthquake swarms over about 2 and half years, according to a University of Washington press release.Their findings confirmed work published earlier this year that looked at data from 72 events in southern California during a 19-year span. Data collected from swarms in which at least 40 earthquakes were recorded in a few-mile radius over two weeks were studied.

Pattern not observed

The well-recognised pattern of an earthquake burst that begins with a main shock and is followed by numerous smaller aftershocks was not observed in the swarms."We saw a mix of the two kinds of events, swarms or earthquakes and aftershocks, wherever we looked," Vidale said. "It confirms what people have suspected. There are earthquake swarms and they are responses to factors we can't see and don't have a direct way to measure." The Japanese research is published in the online edition of Geophysical Research Letters. Away from volcanic and thermal regions, it is unclear what triggers swarms that don't include main shocks and aftershocks, Vidale said. It is possible that swarms are driven by tectonic movements so gradual that they take many minutes to weeks to unfold but still are much more rapid than normal plate tectonic motions. The scientists suspect that `swarminess' in volcanic and geothermal zones might be driven by hot water or magma pushing fault seams apart or acting to reduce friction and enhancing the seismic activity in those areas.

Expectations belied

Contrary to expectations, the researchers also found that swarms occurring within 30 miles of Japan's volcanoes lasted perhaps twice as long as swarms in other types of geological formations. It was expected that earthquake episodes would have been briefer in hotter rock formations. OUR BUREAU