Bullerwell 2020 abstract

Winner: Dr. Rebecca Bell, Senior Lecturer, Imperial College London, UK


Online Talk: “Bringing slow slip processes into focus”

Rebecca Bell will deliver the online 2020 Bullerwell Lecture, hosted by the British Geophysical Association at 14:00 BST (13:00 UTC) on Thursday 3 September 2020.

To register your interest in attending the lecture please complete this form.  (Attendance is free but registration is required.)


The discovery of slow slip events (SSEs) at subduction margins in the last two decades has changed our understanding of how stress is released at subduction zones. Fault slip is now viewed as a continuum of different slip modes between regular earthquakes and aseismic creep, and an appreciation of seismic hazard can only be realised by understanding the full spectrum of slip. SSEs may have the potential to trigger destructive earthquakes and tsunami on faults nearby, but whether this is possible and why SSEs occur at all are two of the most important questions in earthquake seismology today. Laboratory and numerical models suggest that slow slip can be spontaneously generated under conditions of very low effective stresses, facilitated by high pore fluid pressure, but it has also been suggested that variations in frictional behaviour, potentially caused by very heterogeneous fault zone lithology, may be required to promote slow slip.

Testing these hypotheses is difficult as it requires resolving rock properties at a high resolution many km below the seabed sometimes in km’s of water, where drilling is technically challenging and expensive. Traditional geophysical methods like travel-time tomography cannot provide fine-scale enough velocity models to probe the rock properties in fault zones specifically. In the last decade, however, computational power has improved to the point where 3D full-waveform inversion (FWI) methods make it possible to use the full wavefield rather than just travel times to produce seismic velocity models with a resolution an order of magnitude better than conventional models. Although the hydrocarbon industry have demonstrated many successful examples of 3D FWI the method requires extremely high density arrays of instruments, very different to the 2D transect data collection style which is still commonly employed at subduction zones.

The north Hikurangi subduction zone, New Zealand is special, as it hosts the world’s most well characterised shallow SSEs (<2 km to 15 km below the seabed).  This makes it an ideal location to collect 3D data optimally for FWI to resolve rock properties in the slow slip zone. In 2017-2018 an unprecedentedly large 3D experiment including 3D multi-channel seismic reflection, 99 ocean bottom seismometers and 194 onshore seismometers was conducted along the north Hikurangi margin in an 100 km x 15 km area, with an average 2 km instrument spacing. In addition, IODP Expeditions 372 and 375 collected logging-while drilling and core data, and deployed two bore-hole observatories to target slow slip in the same area. In this presentation I will introduce you to this world class 3D dataset and preliminary results, which will enable high resolution 3D models of physical properties to be made to bring slow slip processes into focus.

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