Earthquake Report: Papua New Guinea

This morning (local time in California) there was an earthquake in Papua New Guinea with, unfortunately, a high likelihood of having a good number of casualties. I was working on a project, so could not immediately begin work on this report.

This M 7.5 earthquake (USGS website) occurred along the Papua Fold and Thrust Belt (PFTB), a (mostly) south vergent sequence of imbricate thrust faults and associated fold (anticlines). The history of this PFTB appears to be related to the collision of the Australia plate with the Caroline and Pacific plates, the delamination of the downgoing oceanic crust, and then associated magmatic effects (from decompression melting where the overriding slab (crust) was exposed to the mantle following the delamination). More about this can be found in Cloos et al. (2005).

The USGS prepared a fault slip model that shows this earthquake may have ruptured a north vergent (south dipping) thrust fault.

There was a M 6.5 earthquake north of today’s M 7.5 earthquake in November 2017. These earthquakes are along different fault systems and likely are too distant to be related.

On 2018.02.26 I prepared an updated report here.

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 1918-2018 with magnitudes M ≥ 6.5 in one version.
I plot the USGS fault plane solutions (moment tensors in blue and focal mechanisms in orange) for the M 7.5 earthquake, in addition to some relevant historic earthquakes. There was a M 6.6 earthquake to the southeast along the PFTB in 2000 and I include the moment tensor for this earthquake.

  • 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 lower right 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). This map shows the major plate boundary faults. Active subduction zones have shaded triangle fault symbols, while inactive subduction zones have un-shaded triangle fault line symbols.
  • In the lower left corner is a map showing the fault systems in the region (Cloos et al., 2005). The legend allows us to distinguish between active and inactive fault systems.
  • In the upper right corner is a figure from Baldwin et al. (2012). This figure shows a series of cross sections along this convergent plate boundary from the Solomon Islands in the east to Papua New Guinea in the west. Cross section ‘D’ is the most representative for the earthquakes today. I present the map and this figure again below, with their original captions.
  • In the upper left corner is cross section D-D’ that shows the PFTB. I placed the blue star along a north vergent fault that may be associated with today’s M 7.5. The faults are actually quite complex, so this schematic illustration may not be a perfect representation of the faults here.
  • In the center left is a plot showing the larger aftershocks (large enough to show up in USGS database, a global catalog). The rupture length of the fault that ruptured today may be ~160 km. Considering empirical relations developed by Wells and Coppersmith (1994), a 160 km fault length would generate a M 7.6-7.7 earthquake (close to M 7.5, given the empirical relations and the uncertainty with those relations).

  • The same map without historic seismicity.

  • Here is the interpretive poster from last November (this is the report).

  • Some Relevant Discussion and Figures

    • 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)

    • Koulali et al (2015) use GPS data to resolve the kinematics of the central-eastern Papua New Guinea region. The first figure below is a map that shows the GPS velocities in this region There are two cross section profiles labled on the map (the M 7.5 earthquake happened to the east of A-A’). Note the complicated and detaile dfault mapping (the balck lines). The convergence is generally perpendicular to the PFTB in the east and more oblique to the PFTB on the western portion of this map.

    • The GPS velocity field and 95 per cent confidence interval ellipses with respect to the Australian Plate. Red and blue vectors are the new calculated field and black vectors are from Wallace et al. (2004). The dashed rectangle shows the area of Fig. 3. The blue dashed lines correspond to the location of profiles shown in Fig. 4. Note that the velocity scales for the red and blue vectors are different (see the lower right corner for scales). The black velocities are plotted at the same scale as the red vectors.

    • Here are the two profiles. The red and blue lines plot vertical land motion (VLM) rates in mm/yr and show strain accumulates across the region. Today’s earthquake happened in the region labeled ‘Highland FTB.’ The plot shows that ~5 mm/yr of strain accumulates in this fault system.

    • Profiles A–A& and B–B& from Fig. 2 showing model fit to GPS observations. Red symbols and lines are the GPS observed and modelled velocities, respectively, for the profile-normal component. Blue symbols and lines correspond to the profile-parallel component. The green and pink lines corresponds to the model using the Ramu-Markham fault geometry from Wallace et al. (2004), south of Lae. Grey profiles show the projected topography. The seismicity is from the ISC catalogue for events > Mw 3.5 (1960–2011).

    • Here is a comparison of the proposed fault length shown on the poster with fault scaling relations from Wells and Coppersmith (1994). The upper panel is figure 9 and the lower panel is figure 17. I include figure captions for these figures below. Presuming a fault length of 160 km, the magnitude would be between 7.5 and 8.

    • Figure 9. (a) Regression of surface rupture length on magnitude (M). Regression line shown for all-slip-type relationship. Short dashed line indicates 95% confidence interval. (b) Regression lines for strike-slip, reverse, and normal-slip relationships. See Table 2 for regression coefficients. Length of regression lines shows the range of data for each relationship.

      Figure 17. Regression lines for stable continental region (SCR) earthquakes and non-SCR continental earthquakes. (a) Regression of surface rupture length on magnitude (M). (b) Regression of rupture area on magnitude (M).

    • Here is the USGS Pager Alert. More can be found about the PAGER alerts here.
    • PAGER provides shaking and loss estimates following significant earthquakes anywhere in the world. These estimates are generally available within 30 minutes and are updated as more information becomes available. Rapid estimates include the number of people and names of cities exposed to each shaking intensity level as well as the likely ranges of fatalities and economic losses. PAGER does not consider secondary effects such as landslides, liquefaction, and tsunami in loss estimates at this time.
    • This shows that there is a 42% chance that there will be between 100 and 1,000 casualties. We can only hope that there are fewer (which is possible).

    • 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. The PFTB is shown as a kelly-green band of color.

    • 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, Earthquake data are sourced from the International Seismological Center EHB Bulletin (; data represent events from January 1994 through January 2009 with constrained focal depths. Background image is generated from 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 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.

    • UPDATE (23:00 pacific time): This is one of the ground motion visualizations from IRIS. The red and blue colors represent the upward or downward motion recorded on seismometers. Note the background motions along the coast of WA, OR, and CA have high amplitudes (darker red and darker blue). This is probably due to the storm that is hitting the region (the wind blows trees, buildings, etc. and the waves pound the earth, both of which are recorded on seismometers). This is the first time that I noticed this phenomena on one of these visualizations. There are probably many other examples.
    • Another cool thing is that about half way through the animation, the seismic waves that were traveling west from the earthquake, travel around the globe, and then are seen here, traveling from teh east coast to the west coast. This is common to most all of these visualizations.

    Geologic Fundamentals

    • For more on the graphical representation of moment tensors and focal mechnisms, check this IRIS video out:
    • Here is a fantastic infographic from Frisch et al. (2011). This figure shows some examples of earthquakes in different plate tectonic settings, and what their fault plane solutions are. There is a cross section showing these focal mechanisms for a thrust or reverse earthquake. The upper right corner includes my favorite figure of all time. This shows the first motion (up or down) for each of the four quadrants. This figure also shows how the amplitude of the seismic waves are greatest (generally) in the middle of the quadrant and decrease to zero at the nodal planes (the boundary of each quadrant).

    • There are three types of earthquakes, strike-slip, compressional (reverse or thrust, depending upon the dip of the fault), and extensional (normal). Here is are some animations of these three types of earthquake faults. The following three animations are from IRIS.
    • Strike Slip:



    Social Media


    • Baldwin, S.L., Monteleone, B.D., Webb, L.E., Fitzgerald, P.G., Grove, M., and Hill, E.J., 2004. Pliocene eclogite exhumation at plate tectonic rates in eastern Papua New Guinea in Nature, v. 431, p/ 263-267, doi:10.1038/nature02846.
    • Baldwin, S.L., Fitzgerald, P.G., and Webb, L.E., 2012. Tectonics of the New Guinea Region, Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci., v. 40, pp. 495-520.
    • Cloos, M., Sapiie, B., Quarles van Ufford, A., Weiland, R.J., Warren, P.Q., and McMahon, T.P., 2005, Collisional delamination in New Guinea: The geotectonics of subducting slab breakoff: Geological Society of America Special Paper 400, 51 p., doi: 10.1130/2005.2400.
    • Hamilton, W.B., 1979. Tectonics of the Indonesian Region, USGS Professional Paper 1078.
    • Hayes, G. P., D. J. Wald, and R. L. Johnson (2012), Slab1.0: A three-dimensional model of global subduction zone geometries, J. Geophys. Res., 117, B01302, doi:10.1029/2011JB008524.
    • Holm, R. and Richards, S.W., 2013. A re-evaluation of arc-continent collision and along-arc variation in the Bismarck Sea region, Papua New Guinea in Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. 60, p. 605-619.
    • Holm, R.J., Richards, S.W., Rosenbaum, G., and Spandler, C., 2015. Disparate Tectonic Settings for Mineralisation in an Active Arc, Eastern Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in proceedings from PACRIM 2015 Congress, Hong Kong ,18-21 March, 2015, pp. 7.
    • Holm, R.J., Rosenbaum, G., Richards, S.W., 2016. Post 8 Ma reconstruction of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands: Microplate tectonics in a convergent plate boundary setting in Eartth Science Reviews, v. 156, p. 66-81.
    • Johnson, R.W., 1976, Late Cainozoic volcanism and plate tectonics at the southern margin of the Bismarck Sea, Papua New Guinea, in Johnson, R.W., ed., 1976, Volcanism in Australia: Amsterdam, Elsevier, p. 101-116
    • Koulali, A., tregoning, P., McClusky, S., Stanaway, R., Wallace, L., and Lister, G., 2015. New Insights into the present-day kinematics of the central and western Papua New Guinea from GPS in GJI, v. 202, p. 993-1004, doi: 10.1093/gji/ggv200
    • Sapiie, B., and Cloos, M., 2004. Strike-slip faulting in the core of the Central Range of west New Guinea: Ertsberg Mining District, Indonesia in GSA Bulletin, v. 116; no. 3/4; p. 277–293
    • Tregoning, P., McQueen, H., Lambeck, K., Jackson, R. Little, T., Saunders, S., and Rosa, R., 2000. Present-day crustal motion in Papua New Guinea, Earth Planets and Space, v. 52, pp. 727-730.
    • Wells, D., l., and Coppersmith, K.J., 1994. New Empirical Relationships among Magnitude, Rupture Length, Rupture Width, Rupture Area, and Surface Displacement in BSSA, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 974-1002

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *