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Tides Play a Role in Triggering Undersea Earthquakes

Maya Tolstoy, earthquakes, oceans
Maya Tolstoy gives a TED talk earlier this year in Geneva, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Can shifting tides trigger earthquakes? Research done by Maya Tolstoy, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, suggests they do. She spoke about the phenomenon in a TED talk (above) given earlier this year in Geneva, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Material from far below in the Earth’s mantle wells up at mid-ocean ridges that curve around the globe like the seams on a baseball. At these ridges, the Earth’s crust is pulling apart and reforming, one of the forces driving the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

Tolstoy and colleagues’ work found that a pattern of smaller earthquakes along the ridges mimicked the tidal cycle. The tides don’t actually cause the quakes, but the added change in pressure can push an increasingly stressed fault over the edge.

This phenomenon may help us learn how to predict much larger quakes, Tolstoy says. Research by a Japanese scientist found evidence of tidal triggering of smaller earthquakes leading up to the massive quake in 2004 that shook Sumatra and devastated the region with a huge tsunami.

Over her career, Tolstoy has participated in 30 research expeditions to explore Earth’s changing undersea landscape. Tolstoy was featured in James Cameron’s 2005 documentary, Aliens of the Deep, and been a finalist in NASA’s astronaut program.

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