Mount Rainier is one of the most seismically active volcanoes in the Cascade Range, with an average of one to two high-frequency volcano-tectonic (or VT) earthquakes occurring directly beneath the summit in a given month. Despite this level of seismicity, little is known about its cause. The VT earthquakes occur at a steady rate in several clusters below the inferred base of the Quaternary volcanic edifice. More than half of 18 focal mechanisms determined for these events are normal, and most stress axes deviate significantly from the regional stress field. We argue that these characteristics are most consistent with earthquakes in response to processes associated with circulation of fluids and magmatic gases within and below the base of the edifice. Circulation of these fluids and gases has weakened rock and reduced effective stress to the point that gravity-induced brittle fracture, due to the weight of the overlying edifice, can occur. Results from seismic tomography and rock, water, and gas geochemistry studies support this interpretation. We combine constraints from these studies into a model for the magmatic system that includes a large volume of hot rock (temperatures greater than the brittle-ductile transition) with small pockets of melt and/or hot fluids at depths of 8-18 km below the summit. We infer that fluids and heat from this volume reach the edifice via a narrow conduit, resulting in fumarolic activity at the summit, hydrothermal alteration of the edifice, and seismicity.
Additional publication details
A model for the magmatic-hydrothermal system at Mount Rainier, Washington, from seismic and geochemical observations