Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Adjoint tomography of the Hikurangi subduction zone and the North Island of New Zealand

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posted on 2021-08-26, 06:01 authored by Bryant Chow

Seismic tomography is a powerful tool for understanding Earth structure. In New Zealand, velocity models derived using ray-based tomography have been used extensively to characterize the complex plate boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates. Advances in computational capabilities now allow us to improve these velocity models using adjoint tomography, an imaging method which minimizes differences between observed and simulated seismic waveforms. We undertake the first application of adjoint tomography in New Zealand to improve a ray-based New Zealand velocity model containing the Hikurangi subduction zone and the North Island of New Zealand.

In support of this work we deployed the Broadband East Coast Network (BEACON), a temporary seismic network aimed at improving coverage of the New Zealand permanent network, along the east coast of the North Island. We concurrently develop an automated, open-source workflow for full-waveform inversion using spectral element and adjoint methods. We employ this tool to assess a candidate velocity model’s suitability for adjoint tomography. Using a 3D ray-based traveltime tomography model of New Zealand, we generate synthetic seismic waveforms for more than 10 000 source–receiver pairs and evaluate waveform misfits. We subsequently perform synthetic checkerboard inversions with a realistic New Zealand source–receiver distribution. Reasonable systematic time shifts and satisfactory checkerboard resolution in synthetic inversions indicate that the candidate model is appropriate as an initial model for adjoint tomography. This assessment also demonstrates the relative ease of use and reliability of the automated tools.

We then undertake a large-scale adjoint tomography inversion for the North Island of New Zealand using up to 1 800 unique source–receiver pairs to fit waveforms with periods 4–30 s, relating to minimum waveform sensitivities on the order of 5 km. Overall, 60 geographically well-distributed earthquakes and as many as 88 broadband station locations are included. Using a nonlinear optimization algorithm, we undertake 28 model updates of Vp and Vs over six distinct inversion legs which progressively increase resolution. The total inversion incurred a computational cost of approximately 500 000 CPU-hours. The overall time shift between observed and synthetic seismograms is reduced, and updated velocities show as much as ±30% change with respect to initial values. A formal resolution analysis using point spread tests highlights that velocity changes are strongly resolved onland and directly offshore, at depths above 30 km, with low-amplitude changes (> 1%) observed down to 100 km depth. The most striking velocity changes coincide with areas related to the active Hikurangi subduction zone.

We interpret the updated velocity model in terms of New Zealand tectonics and geology, and observe good agreement with known basement terranes, and major structural elements such as faults, sedimentary basins, broad-scale subduction related features. We recover increased spatial heterogeneity in seismic velocities along the strike of the Hikurangi subduction zone with respect to the initial model. Below the East Coast, we interpret two localized high-velocity anomalies as previously unidentified subducted seamounts. We corroborate this interpretation with other work, and discuss the implications of deeply subducted seamounts on slip behavior along the Hikurangi margin. In the Cook Strait we observe a low-velocity zone that we interpret as a deep sedimentary basin. Strong velocity gradients bounding this low-velocity zone support hypotheses of a structural boundary here separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand. In the central North Island, low-velocity anomalies are linked to surface geology, and we relate seismic velocities at depth to crustal magmatic activity below the Taupo Volcanic Zone.

This new velocity model provides more accurate synthetic seismograms and additional constraints on enigmatic tectonic processes related to the North Island of New Zealand. Both the velocity model itself, and the underpinning methodological contributions, improve our ever-expanding understanding of the North Island of New Zealand, the Hikurangi subduction zone, and the broader Australian-Pacific plate boundary.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Kaneko, Yoshihiro; Townend, John