Integrated geologic and geophysical studies of North American continental intraplate seismicity

Special Paper of the Geological Society of America

DOI: 10.1130/2007.2425(08)



The origin of earthquakes within stable continental regions has been the subject of debate over the past thirty years. Here, we examine the correlation of North American stable continental region earthquakes using five geologic and geophysical data sets: (1) a newly compiled age-province map; (2) Bouguer gravity data; (3) aeromagnetic anomalies; (4) the tectonic stress field; and (5) crustal structure as revealed by deep seismic-reflection profiles. We find that: (1) Archean-age (3.8-2.5 Ga) North American crust is essentially aseismic, whereas post-Archean (less than 2.5 Ga) crust shows no clear correlation of crustal age and earthquake frequency or moment release; (2) seismicity is correlated with continental paleorifts; and (3) seismicity is correlated with the NE-SW structural grain of the crust of eastern North America, which in turn reflects the opening and closing of the proto- and modern Atlantic Ocean. This structural grain can be discerned as clear NE-SW lineaments in the Bouguer gravity and aeromagnetic anomaly maps. Stable continental region seismicity either: (1) follows the NE-SW lineaments; (2) is aligned at right angles to these lineaments; or (3) forms clusters at what have been termed stress concentrators (e.g., igneous intrusions and intersecting faults). Seismicity levels are very low to the west of the Grenville Front (i.e., in the Archean Superior craton). The correlation of seismicity with NE-SW-oriented lineaments implies that some stable continental region seismicity is related to the accretion and rifting processes that have formed the North American continental crust during the past 2 b.y. We further evaluate this hypothesis by correlating stable continental region seismicity with recently obtained deep seismic-reflection images of the Appalachian and Grenville crust of southern Canada. These images show numerous faults that penetrate deep (40 km) into the crust. An analysis of hypocentral depths for stable continental region earthquakes shows that the frequency and moment magnitude of events are nearly uniform for the entire 0-35 km depths over which crustal earthquakes extend. This is in contradiction with the hypothesis that larger events have deeper focal depths. We conclude that the deep structure of the crust, in particular the existence of deeply penetrating faults, is the controlling parameter, rather than lateral variations in temperature, rheology, or high pore pressure. The distribution of stable continental region earthquakes in eastern North America is consistent with the existence of deeply penetrating crustal faults that have been reactivated in the present stress field. We infer that future earthquakes may occur anywhere along the geophysical lineations that we have identified. This implies that seismic hazard is more widespread in central and eastern North America than indicated by the limited known historical distribution of seismicity. ?? 2007 The Geological Society of America.

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Integrated geologic and geophysical studies of North American continental intraplate seismicity
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Special Paper of the Geological Society of America
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