Earthquake Report: Papua New Guinea!

Well. As I was preparing a job application at the library public wifi (the Airbnb I was staying at did not have wifi in my cabin, nor electricity for that matter), I prepared an interpretive poster for this earthquake. Interestingly, the library prevented any ftp connections, so I had to wait until today to upload my files.

Note: not sure why, but when I prepared this report, I initially entitled it as being along the Tonga subduction zone. This was not correct and I fixed it. There was a recent earthquake along the Tonga subduction zone and I had that on my mind.

This M 6.5 earthquake (here is the USGS website for this earthquake) happened in a region of Papua New Guinea (PNG) that has a long record of different types of tectonic deformation (including subduction, strike-slip, and several fold and thrust belts). To the northwest, in 1998, there was an earthquake that triggered a submarine landslide, which generated a large, devastating, and deadly tsunami. Here is the USGS website for this 1998 M 7.0 earthquake.

There are historic earthquakes to the west of this M 6.5 that are associated with the fold and thrust belt, but this M 6.5 earthquake is too deep to be associated with a possibly eastern extension of this fold and thrust belt. womp womp.

However, there have been a few earthquakes that are more closely (spatially) related to the 2017.11.07 M 6.5 earthquake. On 1986.06.24 there was an M 7.2 earthquake (here is the USGS website for this earthquake) to the southeast. These two earthquakes both have similar fault plane solutions (a moment tensor for the 2017 earthquake and a focal mechanism for the 1986 earthquake) and nearly identical depths. These deep earthquakes are deeper than we would expect for a subduction zone fault, so are possibly related to internal deformation within the downgoing slab. The subduction zone associated with the New Guinea (NG) trench (associated with the 1998 landslide tsunami earthquake) may or may not extend into this region (The Holm et al. (2016) figure below shows it does now). There is a fossil subduction zone (the Melanesian or Manus Trench) to the east of the NG trench, but this is also probably unrelated.

The best candidate is the downgoing slab associated with the New Britain Trench. This subduction zone is formed by the northward motion of the Solomon Sea plate beneath the South Bismarck plate (in the region of New Britain), but to the west, this fault splays into three mapped thrust faults that trend on land in eastern PNG. This is the slab imaged beneath where the epicenters are plotted for both 1986 and 2017 earthquakes. The Holm et al. (2016) figure has an inactive splay that more optimally (geometrically) is suited to fit these two earthquakes. There is a figure in the poster (and plotted below) that shows the geometry of this downgoing slab.

Below is my interpretive poster for this earthquake.


I plot the seismicity from the past month, with color representing depth and diameter representing magnitude (see legend). I include earthquake epicenters from 1917-2017 with magnitudes M ≥ 6.5.

  • I placed a moment tensor / focal mechanism legend on the poster. There is more material from the USGS web sites about moment tensors and focal mechanisms (the beach ball symbols). Both moment tensors and focal mechanisms are solutions to seismologic data that reveal two possible interpretations for fault orientation and sense of motion. One must use other information, like the regional tectonics, to interpret which of the two possibilities is more likely.
  • I also include the shaking intensity contours on the map. These use the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (MMI; see the legend on the map). This is based upon a computer model estimate of ground motions, different from the “Did You Feel It?” estimate of ground motions that is actually based on real observations. The MMI is a qualitative measure of shaking intensity. More on the MMI scale can be found here and here. This is based upon a computer model estimate of ground motions, different from the “Did You Feel It?” estimate of ground motions that is actually based on real observations.
  • I include the slab contours plotted (Hayes et al., 2012), which are contours that represent the depth to the subduction zone fault. These are mostly based upon seismicity. The depths of the earthquakes have considerable error and do not all occur along the subduction zone faults, so these slab contours are simply the best estimate for the location of the fault.
  • I include some inset figures.

  • In the upper left corner is a great figure showing the generalized plate tectonic boundaries in this region of the equatorial Pacific Ocean (Holm et al., 2016). I place a blue star in the general location of the M 6.5 earthquake (also plotted in other inset figures).
  • In the lower left corner is another plate tectonic map (Sapiie and Cloos, 2004) showing a slightly different interpretation of the faults in this region.
  • In the upper right corner are two figures from Holm and Richards (2013). Their paper discusses the back-arc spreading in the Bismarck Sea. They use hypocenter data to construct this 3-D model of the slab. On the right is a forecast of how the slab will be consumed along these subduction zones in the future.
  • In the lower right corner is another figure from Holm and Rihards (2013) where they present a low angle oblique view of the slab that they modeled in their paper.
  • To the left of the Holm and Richards figure is a map only has plate motions plotted (from Paul Tregoning at The Australian National University). The map plots, “linear velocities of GPS sites in PNG, showing absolute motions of the numerous tectonic plates.” Go to his website where he presents some related papers.


  • In 2015 there were a few small earthquakes to the northeast of the 1986 and 2017 deep earthquakes, but they were much shallower. However, they show a similarly oriented fault place solution. Though, these 2015 earthquakes are probably associated with the current strain being accumulated and released associated with plate tectonic boundaries (while the 1986 and 2017 deep earthquakes are not; their shared orientation is probably just coincidental?).
  • Here is the report from 2015. Below is the interpretive poster for those earthquakes (note how my posters are seeing a realized improvement over time).

  • Here is the Holm et al. (2016) figure.

  • Topography, bathymetry and regional tectonic setting of New Guinea and Solomon Islands. Arrows indicate rate and direction of plate motion of the Australian and Pacific plates (MORVEL, DeMets et al., 2010); Mamberamo thrust belt, Indonesia (MTB); North Fiji Basin (NFB)

  • Here is the tectonic map figure from Sappie and Cloos (2004). Their work was focused on western PNG, so their interpretations are more detailed there (and perhaps less relevant for us for these eastern PNG earthquakes).

  • Seismotectonic interpretation of New Guinea. Tectonic features: PTFB—Papuan thrust-and-fold belt; RMFZ—Ramu-Markham fault zone; BTFZ—Bewani-Torricelli fault zone; MTFB—Mamberamo thrust-and-fold belt; SFZ—Sorong fault zone; YFZ—Yapen fault zone; RFZ—Ransiki fault zone; TAFZ—Tarera-Aiduna fault zone; WT—Waipona Trough. After Sapiie et al. (1999).

  • This is the two panel figure from Holm and Richards (2013) that shows how the New Britain trench megathrust splays into three thrust faults as this fault system heads onto PNG. They plot active thrust faults as black triangles (with the triangles on the hanging wall side of the fault) and inactive thrust faults as open triangles. So, either the NG trench subduction zone extends further east than is presented in earlier work or the Bundi Fault Zone is the fault associated with this deep seismicity.

  • Topography, bathymetry and major tectonic elements of the study area. (a) Major tectonic boundaries of Papua New Guinea and the western Solomon Islands; CP, Caroline plate; MB, Manus Basin; NBP, North Bismarck plate; NBT, New Britain trench; NGT, New Guinea trench; NST, North Solomon trench; PFTB, Papuan Fold and Thrust Belt; PT, Pocklington trough; RMF, Ramu-Markham Fault; SBP, South Bismarck plate; SCT, San Cristobal trench; SS, Solomon Sea plate; TT, Trobriand trough; WB,Woodlark Basin; WMT,West Melanesian trench. Study area is indicated by rectangle labelled Figure 1b; the other inset rectangle highlights location for subsequent figures. Present day GPS motions of plates are indicated relative to the Australian plate (from Tregoning et al. 1998, 1999; Tregoning 2002; Wallace et al. 2004). (b) Detailed topography, bathymetry and structural elements significant to the South Bismarck region (terms not in common use are referenced); AFB, Aure Fold Belt (Davies 2012); AT, Adelbert Terrane (e.g. Wallace et al. 2004); BFZ, Bundi Fault Zone (Abbott 1995); BSSL, Bismarck Sea Seismic Lineation; CG, Cape Gloucester; FT, Finisterre Terrane; GF, Gogol Fault (Abbott 1995); GP, Gazelle Peninsula; HP, Huon Peninsula; MB, Manus Basin; NB, New Britain; NI, New Ireland; OSF, Owen Stanley Fault; RMF, Ramu-Markham Fault; SS, Solomon Sea; WMR, Willaumez-Manus Rise (Johnson et al. 1979); WT, Wonga Thrust (Abbott et al. 1994); minor strike-slip faults are shown adjacent to Huon Peninsula (Abers & McCaffrey 1994) and in east New Britain, the Gazelle Peninsula (e.g. Madsen & Lindley 1994). Circles indicate centres of Quaternary volcanism of the Bismarck arc. Filled triangles indicate active thrusting or subduction, empty triangles indicate extinct or negligible thrusting or subduction.

  • Here is the slab interpretation for the New Britain region from Holm and Richards, 2013. I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • 3-D model of the Solomon slab comprising the subducted Solomon Sea plate, and associated crust of the Woodlark Basin and Australian plate subducted at the New Britain and San Cristobal trenches. Depth is in kilometres; the top surface of the slab is contoured at 20 km intervals from the Earth’s surface (black) to termination of slabrelated seismicity at approximately 550 km depth (light brown). Red line indicates the locations of the Ramu-Markham Fault (RMF)–New Britain trench (NBT)–San Cristobal trench (SCT); other major structures are removed for clarity; NB, New Britain; NI, New Ireland; SI, Solomon Islands; SS, Solomon Sea; TLTF, Tabar–Lihir–Tanga–Feni arc. See text for details.

  • Here are the forward models for the slab in the New Britain region from Holm and Richards, 2013. I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • Forward tectonic reconstruction of progressive arc collision and accretion of New Britain to the Papua New Guinea margin. (a) Schematic forward reconstruction of New Britain relative to Papua New Guinea assuming continued northward motion of the Australian plate and clockwise rotation of the South Bismarck plate. (b) Cross-sections illustrate a conceptual interpretation of collision between New Britain and Papua New Guinea.

  • Earlier, in other earthquake reports, I have discussed seismicity from 2000-2015 here. The seismicity on the west of this region appears aligned with north-south shortening along the New Britain trench, while seismicity on the east of this region appears aligned with more east-west shortening. Here is a map that I put together where I show these two tectonic domains with the seismicity from this time period (today’s earthquakes are not plotted on this map, but one may see where they might plot).

  • This map shows plate velocities and euler poles for different blocks. I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • Tectonic maps of the New Guinea region. (a) Seismicity, volcanoes, and plate motion vectors. Plate motion vectors relative to the Australian plate are surface velocity models based on GPS data, fault slip rates, and earthquake focal mechanisms (UNAVCO, http://jules.unavco.org/Voyager/Earth). Earthquake data are sourced from the International Seismological Center EHB Bulletin (http://www.isc.ac.uk); data represent events from January 1994 through January 2009 with constrained focal depths. Background image is generated from http://www.geomapapp.org. Abbreviations: AB, Arafura Basin; AT, Aure Trough; AyT, Ayu Trough; BA, Banda arc; BSSL, Bismarck Sea seismic lineation; BH, Bird’s Head; BT, Banda Trench; BTFZ, Bewani-Torricelli fault zone; DD, Dayman Dome; DEI, D’Entrecasteaux Islands; FP, Fly Platform; GOP, Gulf of Papua; HP, Huon peninsula; LA, Louisiade Archipelago; LFZ, Lowlands fault zone; MaT, Manus Trench; ML, Mt. Lamington; MT, Mt. Trafalgar; MuT, Mussau Trough; MV, Mt. Victory; MTB, Mamberamo thrust belt; MVF, Managalase Plateau volcanic field; NBT, New Britain Trench; NBA, New Britain arc; NF, Nubara fault; NGT, New Guinea Trench; OJP, Ontong Java Plateau; OSF, Owen Stanley fault zone; PFTB, Papuan fold-and-thrust belt; PP, Papuan peninsula; PRi, Pocklington Rise; PT, Pocklington Trough; RMF, Ramu-Markham fault; SST, South Solomons Trench; SA, Solomon arc; SFZ, Sorong fault zone; ST, Seram Trench; TFZ, Tarera-Aiduna fault zone; TJ, AUS-WDKPAC triple junction; TL, Tasman line; TT, Trobriand Trough;WD, Weber Deep;WB, Woodlark Basin;WFTB, Western (Irian) fold-and-thrust belt; WR,Woodlark Rift; WRi, Woodlark Rise; WTB, Weyland thrust; YFZ, Yapen fault zone.White box indicates the location shown in Figure 3. (b) Map of plates, microplates, and tectonic blocks and elements of the New Guinea region. Tectonic elements modified after Hill & Hall (2003). Abbreviations: ADB, Adelbert block; AOB, April ultramafics; AUS, Australian plate; BHB, Bird’s Head block; CM, Cyclops Mountains; CWB, Cendrawasih block; CAR, Caroline microplate; EMD, Ertsberg Mining District; FA, Finisterre arc; IOB, Irian ophiolite belt; KBB, Kubor & Bena blocks (including Bena Bena terrane); LFTB, Lengguru fold-and-thrust belt; MA, Mapenduma anticline; MB, Mamberamo Basin block; MO, Marum ophiolite belt; MHS, Manus hotspot; NBS, North Bismarck plate; NGH, New Guinea highlands block; NNG, Northern New Guinea block; OKT, Ok Tedi mining district; PAC, Pacific plate; PIC, Porgera intrusive complex; PSP, Philippine Sea plate; PUB, Papuan Ultramafic Belt ophiolite; SB, Sepik Basin block; SDB, Sunda block; SBS, South Bismarck plate; SIB, Solomon Islands block; WP, Wandamen peninsula; WDK, Woodlark microplate; YQ, Yeleme quarries.

  • This figure incorporates cross sections and map views of various parts of the regional tectonics (Baldwin et al., 2012). These deep earthquakes are nearest the cross section D (though are much deeper than these shallow cross sections). I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • Oblique block diagram of New Guinea from the northeast with schematic cross sections showing the present-day plate tectonic setting. Digital elevation model was generated from http://www.geomapapp.org. Oceanic crust in tectonic cross sections is shown by thick black-and-white hatched lines, with arrows indicating active subduction; thick gray-and-white hatched lines indicate uncertain former subduction. Continental crust, transitional continental crust, and arc-related crust are shown without pattern. Representative geologic cross sections across parts of slices C and D are marked with transparent red ovals and within slices B and E are shown by dotted lines. (i ) Cross section of the Papuan peninsula and D’Entrecasteaux Islands modified from Little et al. (2011), showing the obducted ophiolite belt due to collision of the Australian (AUS) plate with an arc in the Paleogene, with later Pliocene extension and exhumation to form the D’Entrecasteaux Islands. (ii ) Cross section of the Papuan peninsula after Davies & Jaques (1984) shows the Papuan ophiolite thrust over metamorphic rocks of AUS margin affinity. (iii ) Across the Papuan mainland, the cross section after Crowhurst et al. (1996) shows the obducted Marum ophiolite and complex folding and thrusting due to collision of the Melanesian arc (the Adelbert, Finisterre, and Huon blocks) in the Late Miocene to recent. (iv) Across the Bird’s Head, the cross section after Bailly et al. (2009) illustrates deformation in the Lengguru fold-and-thrust belt as a result of Late Miocene–Early Pliocene northeast-southwest shortening, followed by Late Pliocene–Quaternary extension. Abbreviations as in Figure 2, in addition to NI, New Ireland; SI, Solomon Islands; SS, Solomon Sea; (U)HP, (ultra)high-pressure.

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Category(s): earthquake, education, geology, pacific, plate tectonics

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