Faulting within the Mount St. Helens conduit and implications for volcanic earthquakes

GSA Bulletin
By: , and 



The 2004–2008 eruption of Mount St. Helens produced seven dacite spines mantled by cataclastic fault rocks, comprising an outer fault core and an inner damage zone. These fault rocks provide remarkable insights into the mechanical processes that accompany extrusion of degassed magma, insights that are useful in forecasting dome-forming eruptions. The outermost part of the fault core consists of finely comminuted fault gouge that is host to 1- to 3-mm-thick layers of extremely fine-grained slickenside-bearing ultracataclasite. Interior to the fault core, there is an ∼2-m-thick damage zone composed of cataclastic breccia and sheared dacite, and interior to the damage zone, there is massive to flow-banded dacite lava of the spine interior. Structures and microtextures indicate entirely brittle deformation, including rock breakage, tensional dilation, shearing, grain flow, and microfaulting, as well as gas and fluid migration through intergranular pores and fractures in the damage zone. Slickenside lineations and consistent orientations of Riedel shears indicate upward shear of the extruding spines against adjacent conduit wall rocks.

Paleomagnetic directions, demagnetization paths, oxide mineralogy, and petrology indicate that cataclasis took place within dacite in a solidified steeply dipping volcanic conduit at temperatures above 500 °C. Low water content of matrix glass is consistent with brittle behavior at these relatively high temperatures, and the presence of tridymite indicates solidification depths of <1 km. Cataclasis was coincident with the eruption’s seismogenic zone at <1.5 km.

More than a million small and low-frequency “drumbeat” earthquakes with coda magnitudes (Md) <2.0 and frequencies <5 Hz occurred during the 2004–2008 eruption. Our field data provide a means with which to estimate slip-patch dimensions for shear planes and to compare these with estimates of slip patches based on seismic moments and shear moduli for dacite rock and granular fault gouge. Based on these comparisons, we find that aseismic creep is achieved by micron-scale displacements on Riedel shears and by granular flow, whereas the drumbeat earthquakes require millimeter to centimeter displacements on relatively large (e.g., ∼1000 m2) slip patches, possibly along observed extensive principal shear zones within the fault core but probably not along the smaller Riedel shears. Although our field and structural data are compatible with stick-slip models, they do not rule out seismic and infrasound models that call on resonance of steam-filled fractures to generate the drumbeat earthquakes. We suggest that stick-slip and gas release processes may be coupled, and that regardless of the source mechanism, the distinctive drumbeat earthquakes are proving to be an effective precursor for dome-forming eruptions.

Our data document a continuous cycle of deformation along the conduit margins beginning with episodes of fracture in the damage zone and followed by transfer of motion to the fault core. We illustrate the cycle of deformation using a hypothetical cross section of the Mount St. Helens conduit, extending from the surface to the depth of magmatic solidification.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Faulting within the Mount St. Helens conduit and implications for volcanic earthquakes
Series title GSA Bulletin
DOI 10.1130/B30716.1
Volume 125
Issue 3-4
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Volcano Science Center
Description 18 p.
First page 359
Last page 376
Country United States
State Washington
Other Geospatial Mount St. Helens
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