Deep earthquakes beneath the Fiji Basin, SW Pacific: Earth's most intense deep seismicity in stagnant slabs

Emile A. Okal*, Stephen H. Kirby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Previous work has suggested that many of the deep earthquakes beneath the Fiji Basin occur in slab material that has been detached and foundered to the bottom of the transition zone or has been laid down by trench migration in a similar recumbent position. Since nowhere else in the Earth do so many earthquakes occur in slabs stagnated in the transition zone, these earthquakes merit closer study. Accordingly, we have assembled from historical and modern data a comprehensive catalogue of the relocated hypocenters and focal mechanisms of well-located deep events in the geographic area between the bottoms of the main Vanuatu and Tonga Wadati-Benioff zones. Two regions of deep seismogenesis are recognized there: (i) 163 deep shocks have occurred north of 15°S in the Vityaz Group from 1949 to 1996. These seismological observations and the absence of other features characteristic of active subduction suggest that the Vityaz group represents deep failure in a detached slab that has foundered to a horizontal orientation near the bottom of the transition zone. (ii) Another group of nearly 50 'outboard' deep shocks occur between about 450 and 660 km depth, west of the complexly buckled and offset western edge of the Tonga Wadati-Benioff zone. Their geometry is in the form of two or possibly three small-circle arcs that roughly parallel the inferred motion of Tonga trench migration. Earthquakes in the southernmost of these arcs occur in a recumbent high-seismic-wavespeed slab anomaly that connects both to the main inclined Tonga anomaly to the east and a lower mantle anomaly to the west [Van der Hilst, R., 1995. Complex morphology of subducted lithosphere in the mantle beneath the Tonga trench. Nature, Vol. 374, pp. 154-157.]. Both groups show complexity in their focal mechanisms. The major question raised by these observations is the cause of this apparent temporary arrest in the descent of the Tonga slab into the lower mantle. We approach these questions by considering the effects of buoyant metastable peridotite in cold slab material that was detached and rapidly foundered, or was buckled, segmented and laid out in the transition zone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25-63
Number of pages39
JournalPhysics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Nov 1998


  • Deep earthquakes
  • Fiji Basin
  • Slabs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Geophysics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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