Earthquake Report: New Caledonia / Loyalty Islands

We are still all learning so much about the earthquake in Alaska and as I was winding down for the night (the last class tomorrow before the final), I noticed an email from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. There was a sequence of earthquakes along the subduction zone near New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands.

This part of the plate boundary is quite active and I have a number of earthquake reports from the past few years (see below, a list of earthquake reports for this region).

Today’s sequence is cool for at least one reason. First of all, it is possible that few people might be injured. Hopefully that plays out.

But the cool thing from a plate tectonics perspective is that there was a series of different types of earthquakes. At first view, it appears that there was a mainshock with a magnitude of M = 7.5. There was a preceding M 6.0 earthquake which may have been a foreshock.

The M 7.5 earthquake was an extensional earthquake. This may be due to either extension from slab pull or due to extension from bending of the plate. More on this later.

Following the M 7.5, there was an M 6.6 earthquake, however, this was a thrust or reverse (compressional) earthquake. The M 6.6 may have been in the upper plate or along the subduction zone megathrust fault, but we won’t know until the earthquake locations are better determined.

Both of these earthquakes have a default 10 km depth, so we will need to find out more about these depths later.

A similar sequence happened in October/November 2017. I prepared two reports for this sequence here and here. Albeit, in 2017, the thrust earthquake was first (2017.10.31 vs. 2017.11.19).

Interestingly, there was also an earthquake in August 2018. Here is the report for this earthquake. which was a thrust earthquake very close to today’s sequence.

Finally, another cool thing is that the recent M 7.0 in Alaska was also an extensional earthquake along a subduction zone. The Alaska quake was quite deeper and is still being investigated. Today’s M 7.5 / M 6.6 sequence is probably a little more well understood because there have been many analogues in this region.

There have been some observations of tsunami. Below is from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

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 ≥ 7.0 in one version.
I plot the USGS fault plane solutions (moment tensors in blue and focal mechanisms in orange), possibly in addition to some relevant historic earthquakes.

  • 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 2.0 contours plotted (Hayes, 2018), 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>

    Magnetic Anomalies

  • In the map below, I include a transparent overlay of the magnetic anomaly data from EMAG2 (Meyer et al., 2017). As oceanic crust is formed, it inherits the magnetic field at the time. At different points through time, the magnetic polarity (north vs. south) flips, the north pole becomes the south pole. These changes in polarity can be seen when measuring the magnetic field above oceanic plates. This is one of the fundamental evidences for plate spreading at oceanic spreading ridges (like the Gorda rise).
  • Regions with magnetic fields aligned like today’s magnetic polarity are colored red in the EMAG2 data, while reversed polarity regions are colored blue. Regions of intermediate magnetic field are colored light purple.
  • We can see the roughly east-west trends of these red and blue stripes. These lines are parallel to the ocean spreading ridges from where they were formed.

    I include some inset figures. Some of the same figures are located in different places on the larger scale map below.

  • In the upper left corner is a pair of maps from Schellart et al., 2002. The left map shows the bathymetry (depth of ocean) and the right panel shows the plate boundaries, as well as details about the spreading ridges in the basins to the east of the New Hebrides trench.
  • In the lower left corner I include a figure from Richards et al. (2011) that shows the major plate boundary faults in the region. They also plot seismicity with color representing depth. This allows us to visualize the subduction zone fault as it dips (eastward for the New Hebrides and westwards for the Tonga subduction zones). The cross section in the panel on the right is designated by the black dashed line. I also place this line as a dashed green line in the interpretive poster below. I place a yellow star in the general location of the M 6.8 earthquake.
  • In the upper right corner I include the map and seismicity cross section from Benz et al. (2011). These maps plot the seismicity and this reveals the nature of the downgoing subducting slab. Shallower earthquakes are generally more related to the subduction zone fault or deformation within either plate (interplate and intraplate earthquakes). While the deeper earthquakes are not megathrust fault related, but solely due to internal crustal deformation (intraplate earthquakes). I highlight the location of the cross section with a blue line labeled G-G’ (and place this cross section in the general location on the main interpretive map.
  • In the lower right corner is a map and plot showing seismicity and fault mechanisms for historic earthquakes (Craig et al., 2014).
  • Here is the map with a month’s seismicity plotted.

  • Here is the map with a century’s seismicity plotted.

  • Here is the educational poster from August 2018 with a century’s seismicity plotted.

Some Relevant Discussion and Figures

  • Here is a map from the USGS report (Benz et al., 2011). Read more about this map on the USGS website. Earthquakes are plotted with color related to depth and circle diameter related to magnitude. Today’s M 6.8 earthquake occurred south of cross section G-G’.

  • This is the legend.

  • Here is a cross section showing the seismicity along swatch profile G-G’.

  • Craig et al. (2014) evaluated the historic record of seismicity for subduction zones globally. In particular, the evaluated the relations between upper and lower plate stresses and earthquake types (cogent for the southern New Hebrides trench). Below is a figure from their paper for this part of the world. I include their figure caption below in blockquote.

  • Outer-rise seismicity along the New Hebrides arc. (a) Seismicity and focal mechanisms. Seismicity at the southern end of the arc is dominated by two major outer-rise normal faulting events, and MW 7.6 on 1995 May 16 and an MW 7.1 on 2004 January 3. Earthquakes are included from Chapple & Forsyth (1979); Chinn & Isacks (1983); Liu & McNally (1993). (b) Time versus latitude plot.

  • Here is a summary figure from Craig et al. (2014) that shows different stress configurations possibly existing along subduction zones.

  • Schematic diagram for the factors influencing the depth of the transition from horizontal extension to horizontal compression beneath the outer rise. Slab pull, the interaction of the descending slab with the 660 km discontinuity (or increasing drag from the surround mantle), and variations in the interface stress influence both the bending moment and the in-plane stress. Increases in the angle of slab dip increases the dominance of the bending moment relative to the in-plane stress, and hence moves the depth of transition towards the middle of the mechanical plate from either an shallower or a deeper position. A decrease in slab dip enhances the influence of the in-plane stress, and hence moves the transition further from the middle of the mechanical plate, either deeper for an extensional in-plane stress, or shallower for a compressional in-plane stress. Increased plate age of the incoming plate leads to increases in the magnitude of ridge push and intraplate thermal contraction, increasing the in-plane compressional stress in the plate prior to bending. Dynamic topography of the oceanic plate seawards of the trench can result in either in-plane extension or compression prior to the application of the bending stresses.

  • Here is a great figure from here, the New Caledonian Seismologic Network. This shows how geologists have recorded uplift rates along dip (“perpendicular” to the subduction zone fault). On the left is a map and on the right is a vertical profile showing how these rates of uplift change east-west. This is the upwards flexure related to the outer rise, which causes extension in the upper part of the downgoing/subducting plate.

  • The subduction of the Australian plate under the Vanuatu arc is also accompanied by vertical movements of the lithosphere. Thus, the altitudes recorded by GPS at the level of the Quaternary reef formations that cover the Loyalty Islands (Ouvéa altitude: 46 m, Lifou: 104 m and Maré 138 m) indicate that the Loyalty Islands accompany a bulge of the Australian plate. just before his subduction. Coral reefs that have “recorded” the high historical levels of the sea serve as a reference marker for geologists who map areas in uprising or vertical depression (called uplift and subsidence). Thus, the various studies have shown that the Loyalty Islands, the Isle of Pines but alsothe south of Grande Terre (Yaté region) rise at speeds between 1.2 and 2.5 millimeters per decade.

  • Here are the figures from Richards et al. (2011) with their figure captions below in blockquote.
  • The main tectonic map

  • bathymetry, and major tectonic element map of the study area. The Tonga and Vanuatu subduction systems are shown together with the locations of earthquake epicenters discussed herein. Earthquakes between 0 and 70 km depth have been removed for clarity. Remaining earthquakes are color-coded according to depth. Earthquakes located at 500–650 km depth beneath the North Fiji Basin are also shown. Plate motions for Vanuatu are from the U.S. Geological Survey, and for Tonga from Beavan et al. (2002) (see text for details). Dashed line indicates location of cross section shown in Figure 3. NFB—North Fiji Basin; HFZ—Hunter Fracture Zone.

  • Here is the map showing the current configuration of the slabs in the region.

  • Map showing distribution of slab segments beneath the Tonga-Vanuatu region. West-dipping Pacifi c slab is shown in gray; northeast-dipping Australian slab is shown in red. Three detached segments of Australian slab lie below the North Fiji Basin (NFB). HFZ—Hunter Fracture Zone. Contour interval is 100 km. Detached segments of Australian plate form sub-horizontal sheets located at ~600 km depth. White dashed line shows outline of the subducted slab fragments when reconstructed from 660 km depth to the surface. When all subducted components are brought to the surface, the geometry closely approximates that of the North Fiji Basin.

  • This is the cross section showing the megathrust fault configuration based on seismic tomography and seismicity.

  • Previous interpretation of combined P-wave tomography and seismicity from van der Hilst (1995). Earthquake hypocenters are shown in blue. The previous interpretation of slab structure is contained within the black dashed lines. Solid red lines mark the surface of the Pacifi c slab (1), the still attached subducting Australian slab (2a), and the detached segment of the Australian plate (2b). UM—upper mantle;
    TZ—transition zone; LM—lower mantle.

  • Here is their time step interpretation of the slabs that resulted in the second figure above.

  • Simplifi ed plate tectonic reconstruction showing the progressive geometric evolution of the Vanuatu and Tonga subduction systems in plan view and in cross section. Initiation of the Vanuatu subduction system begins by 10 Ma. Initial detachment of the basal part of the Australian slab begins at ca. 5–4 Ma and then sinking and collision between the detached segment and the Pacifi c slab occur by 3–4 Ma. Initial opening of the Lau backarc also occurred at this time. Between 3 Ma and the present, both slabs have been sinking progressively to their current position. VT—Vitiaz trench; dER—d’Entrecasteaux Ridge.

  • Here is a figure that shows the coulomb stress changes due to the 2011 earthquake. Basically, this shows which locations on the fault where we might expect higher likelihoods of future earthquake slip. I include their figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • Maps of the Coulomb stress change predicted for the joint P wave, Rayleigh wave and continuous GPS inversion in Fig. 2. The margins of the latter fault model are indicated by the box. Two weeks of aftershock locations from the U.S. Geological Survey are superimposed, with symbol sizes scaled relative to seismic magnitude. (a) The Coulomb stress change averaged over depths of 10–15 km for normal faults with the same westward dipping fault plane geometry as the Mw 7.7 outer rise aftershock, for which the global centroid moment tensor mechanism is shown. (b) Similar stress changes for thrust faults with the same geometry as the mainshock, along with the Mw 7.9 thrusting aftershock to the south, for which the global centroid moment tensor is shown.

  • Here is a figure schematically showing how subduction zone earthquakes may increase coulomb stress along the outer rise. The outer rise is a region of the downgoing/subducting plate that is flexing upwards. There are commonly normal faults, sometimes reactivating fracture zone/strike-slip faults, caused by extension along the upper oceanic lithosphere. We call these bending moment normal faults. There was a M 7.1 earthquake on 2013.10.25 that appears to be along one of these faults. I include their figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • Schematic cross-sections of the A) Sanriku-oki, B) Kuril and C) Miyagi-oki subduction zones where great interplate thrust events have been followed by great trench slope or outer rise extensional events (in the first two cases) and concern about that happening in the case of the 2011 event.

  • Here is an animation that shows the seismicity for this region from 1960 – 2016 for earthquakes with magnitudes greater than or equal to 7.0.
  • I include some figures mentioned in my report from 2016.04.28 for a sequence of earthquakes in the same region as today’s earthquake (albeit shallower hypocentral depths), in addition to a plot from Cleveland et al. (2014). In the upper right corner, Cleveland et al. (2014) on the left plot a map showing earthquake epicenters for the time period listed below the plot on the right. On the right is a plot of earthquakes (diameter = magnitude) of earthquakes with latitude on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis. Cleveland et al (2014) discuss these short periods of seismicity that span a certain range of fault length along the New Hebrides Trench in this area. Above is a screen shot image and below is the video.

  • Here is a link to the embedded video below (6 MB mp4)
    Here are the two figures from Cleveland et al. (2014).

  • Figure 1. I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • (left) Seismicity of the northern Vanuatu subduction zone, displaying all USGS-NEIC earthquake hypocenters since 1973. The Australian plate subducts beneath the Pacific in nearly trench-orthogonal convergence along the Vanuatu subduction zone. The largest events are displayed with dotted outlines of the magnitude-scaled circle. Convergence rates are calculated using the MORVEL model for Australia Plate relative to Pacific Plate [DeMets et al., 2010]. (right) All GCMT moment tensor solutions and centroids for Mw ≥ 5 since 1976, scaled with moment. This region experiences abundant moderate and large earthquakes but lacks any events with Mw >8 since at least 1900.

  • Figure 17. I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • One hundred day aftershock distributions of all earthquakes listed in the ISC catalog for the 1966 sequence and in the USGS-NEIC catalog for the 1980, 1997, 2009, and 2013 sequences in northern Vanuatu. The 1966 main shocks are plotted at locations listed by Tajima et al. [1990]. Events of the 1997 and 2009 sequences were relocated using the double difference method [Waldhauser and Ellsworth, 2000] for P wave first arrivals based on EDR picks. The event symbol areas are scaled relative to the earthquake magnitudes based on a method developed by Utsu and Seki [1954]. Hypocenters of most aftershock events occurred at <50 km depth.

  • Figure 17. I include the figure caption below as a blockquote.

  • (right) Space-time plot of shallow (≤ 70 km) seismicity M ≥ 5.0 in northern Vanuatu recorded in the NEIC catalog as a function of distance south of 10°N, 165.25°E. (left) The location of the seismicity on a map rotated to orient the trench vertically.

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).

  • Here is another way to look at these beach balls.
  • 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:



  • This is an image from the USGS that shows how, when an oceanic plate moves over a hotspot, the volcanoes formed over the hotspot form a series of volcanoes that increase in age in the direction of plate motion. The presumption is that the hotspot is stable and stays in one location. Torsvik et al. (2017) use various methods to evaluate why this is a false presumption for the Hawaii Hotspot.

  • A cutaway view along the Hawaiian island chain showing the inferred mantle plume that has fed the Hawaiian hot spot on the overriding Pacific Plate. The geologic ages of the oldest volcano on each island (Ma = millions of years ago) are progressively older to the northwest, consistent with the hot spot model for the origin of the Hawaiian Ridge-Emperor Seamount Chain. (Modified from image of Joel E. Robinson, USGS, in “This Dynamic Planet” map of Simkin and others, 2006.)

  • Here is a map from Torsvik et al. (2017) that shows the age of volcanic rocks at different locations along the Hawaii-Emperor Seamount Chain.

  • Hawaiian-Emperor Chain. White dots are the locations of radiometrically dated seamounts, atolls and islands, based on compilations of Doubrovine et al. and O’Connor et al. Features encircled with larger white circles are discussed in the text and Fig. 2. Marine gravity anomaly map is from Sandwell and Smith.


  • Hayes, G., 2018, Slab2 – A Comprehensive Subduction Zone Geometry Model: U.S. Geological Survey data release,
  • Meyer, B., Saltus, R., Chulliat, a., 2017. EMAG2: Earth Magnetic Anomaly Grid (2-arc-minute resolution) Version 3. National Centers for Environmental Information, NOAA. Model. doi:10.7289/V5H70CVX
  • Benz, H.M., Herman, M., Tarr, A.C., Hayes, G.P., Furlong, K.P., Villaseñor, A., Dart, R.L., and Rhea, S., 2011. Seismicity of the Earth 1900–2010 New Guinea and vicinity: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010–1083-H, scale 1:8,000,000.
  • Bird, P., 2003. An updated digital model of plate boundaries in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 4, doi:10.1029/2001GC000252, 52 p.
  • Craig, T.J., Copley, A., and Jackson, J., 2014. A reassessment of outer-rise seismicity and its implications for the mechanics of oceanic lithosphere in Geophysical Journal International, v. 197, p/ 63-89.
  • Geist, E.L., and Parsons, T., 2005, Triggering of tsunamigenic aftershocks from large strike-slip earthquakes: Analysis of the November 2000 New Ireland earthquake sequence: Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 6, doi:10.1029/2005GC000935, 18 p. [Download PDF (6.5 MB)]
  • 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.
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  • Richards, S., Holm, R., Barber, G., 2011. When slabs collide: A tectonic assessment of deep earthquakes in the Tonga-Vanuatu region in Geology, v. 39, no. 8., p. 787-790
  • Schellart, W.P., Lister, G.S., and Jessell, M.W., 2002. Analogue modeling of arc and backarc deformation in the New Hebrides arc and North Fiji Basin in Geology, v. 30, no. 4, p. 311-314
  • Schwartz, S.Y., 1999, Noncharacteristic behavior and complex recurrence of large subduction zone earthquakes: Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 104, p. 23,111-123,125.
  • Schwartz, S.Y., Lay, T., and Ruff, L.J., 1989, Source process of the great 1971 Solomon Islands doublet: Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, v. 56, p. 294-310.
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