Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Using low-frequency earthquakes to monitor slow tectonic deformation in the central Southern Alps, New Zealand

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posted on 2021-12-07, 10:50 authored by Baratin Wachten, Laura-May

This thesis involves the study of low-frequency earthquakes (LFEs) in the central Southern Alps. The Alpine Fault is the principal locus of deformation within the Australia–Pacific plate boundary in the South Island of New Zealand and it is late in its typical ∼300-year seismic cycle. Surveying the seismicity associated with slow deformation in the vicinity of the Alpine Fault may provide constraints on the stresses acting on a major transpressive margin prior to an anticipated great (≥M8) earthquake. Here, we use 8 years of data from the Southern Alps Microearthquake Borehole Array (SAMBA) (amongst those, 3 years of data were collected as part of this project) in order to: (1) generate an updated LFE catalogue using an improved matched-filter technique that incorporates phase-weighted stacking; (2) compute LFE focal mechanisms and invert them to infer the crustal stress field on the deep extent of the Alpine Fault; (3) expand the LFE catalogue to cover a wider range of spatial/temporal behaviours; (4) study LFE families’ characteristics to identify periods where slow slip might happen.  We first use fourteen primary LFE templates in an iterative matched-filter and stacking routine, which allows the detection of similar signals and produces LFE families sharing common locations. We generate an 8-yr catalogue containing 10,000 LFEs that are combined for each of the 14 LFE families using phase-weighted stacking to produce signals with the highest possible signal-to-noise ratios. We find LFEs to occur almost continuously during the 8-yr study period and we highlight two types of LFE distributions: (1) discrete behaviour with an inter-event time exceeding 2 minutes; (2) burst-like behaviour with an inter-event time below 2 minutes. The discrete events are interpreted as small-scale frequent deformation on the deep extent of the Alpine Fault and the LFE bursts (corresponding in most cases to known episodes of tremor or large regional earthquakes) are interpreted as brief periods of increased slip activity indicative of slow slip. We compute improved non-linear earthquake locations using a 3D velocity model and find LFEs to occur below the seismogenic zone at depths of 17–42 km, on or near the hypothesised deep extent of the Alpine Fault. We then compute the first estimates of LFE focal mechanisms associated with continental faulting. Focal mechanisms, in conjunction with recurrence intervals, are consistent with quasi-continuous shear faulting on the deep extent of the Alpine Fault.  We then generate a new catalogue that regroups hundreds of LFE families. This time 638 synthetic LFE waveforms are generated using a 3D grid and used as primary templates in a matched-filter routine. Of those, 529 templates yield enough detections during the first iteration of the matched-filter routine (≥ 500 detections over the 8-yr study period) and are kept for further analysis. We then use the best 25% of correlated events for each LFE family to generate linear stacks which create new LFE templates. From there, we run a second and final iteration of the matched-filter routine with the new LFE templates to obtain our final LFE catalogue. The remaining 529 templates detect between 150 and 1,671 events each totalling 300,996 detections over the 8-yr study period. Of those 529 LFEs, we manage to locate 378 families. Their depths range between 11 and 60 km and LFEs locate mainly in the southern part of the SAMBA network. We finally examine individual LFE family rates and occurrence patterns. They indicate that LFE sources seem to evolve from an episodic or ‘stepped’ to a continuous behaviour with depth. This transition may correspond to an evolution from a stick-slip to a stable-sliding slip regime. Hence, we propose that the distinctive features of LFE occurrence patterns reflect variations in the in-situ stress and frictional conditions at the individual LFE source locations on the Alpine Fault.  Finally, we use this new extensive catalogue as a tool for in-depth analyses of the deep central Alpine Fault structure and its slip behaviour. We identify eight episodes of increased LFE activity between 2009 and 2017 and provide time windows for further investigations of tremor and slow slip. We also study the spatial and temporal behaviours of LFEs and find that LFEs with synchronous occurrence patterns tend to be clustered in space. We thus suggest that individual LFE sources form spatially coherent clusters that may represent localised asperities or elastic patches on the deep Alpine Fault interface. We infer that those clusters may have a similar rheological response to tectonic forcing or to potential slow slip events. Eventually, we discover slow (10km/day) and rapid (∼20-25km/h) migrations of LFEs along the Alpine Fault. The slow migration might be controlled by slow slip events themselves while the rapid velocities could be explained by the LFE sources’ intrinsic properties.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Institute of Geophysics

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Townend, John; Savage, Martha