Across the plate boundary zone in south central Alaska, tectonic strain rates are high in a region that includes large glaciers undergoing wastage (glacier retreat and thinning) and surges. For the coastal region between the Bering and Malaspina Glaciers, the average ice mass thickness changes between 1995 and 2000 range from 1 to 5 m/year. These ice changes caused solid Earth displacements in our study region with predicted values of -10 to 50 mm in the vertical and predicted horizontal displacements of 0-10 mm at variable orientations. Relative to stable North America, observed horizontal rates of tectonic deformation range from 10 to 40 mm/year to the north-northwest and the predicted tectonic uplift rates range from approximately 0 mm/year near the Gulf of Alaska coast to 12 mm/year further inland. The ice mass changes between 1995 and 2000 resulted in discernible changes in the Global Positioning System (GPS) measured station positions of one site (ISLE) located adjacent to the Bagley Ice Valley and at one site, DON, located south of the Bering Glacier terminus. In addition to modifying the surface displacements rates, we evaluated the influence ice changes during the Bering glacier surge cycle had on the background seismic rate. We found an increase in the number of earthquakes (ML???2.5) and seismic rate associated with ice thinning and a decrease in the number of earthquakes and seismic rate associated with ice thickening. These results support the hypothesis that ice mass changes can modulate the background seismic rate. During the last century, wastage of the coastal glaciers in the Icy Bay and Malaspina region indicates thinning of hundreds of meters and in areas of major retreat, maximum losses of ice thickness approaching 1 km. Between the 1899 Yakataga and Yakutat earthquakes (Mw=8.1, 8.1) and prior to the 1979 St. Elias earthquake (M s=7.2), the plate interface below Icy Bay was locked and tectonic strain accumulated. We used estimated ice mass change during the 1899-1979 time period to calculate the change in the fault stability margin (FSM) prior to the 1979 St. Elias earthquake. Our results suggest that a cumulative decrease in the fault stability margin at seismogenic depths, due to ice wastage over 80 years, was large, up to ???2 MPa. Ice wastage would promote thrust faulting in events such as the 1979 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.
Additional publication details
Glacier ice mass fluctuations and fault instability in tectonically active Southern Alaska