Historical seismicity of the southeastern Caribbean and tectonic implications

Raymond M. Russo*, Emile A. Okal, Keith C. Rowley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


We have relocated the twenty-eight largest magnitude (4.3≤Ms≤7.3) historical (1922-1963) earthquakes of the southeastern Caribbean. We also present new focal mechanisms for seven of these events. The relocations are based on reported ISS P and S arrival times that we analyzed using generalized linear inversion techniques. The new focal mechanisms were constrained by first motion P polarities as reported by the ISS and as picked by us where records were available, and by the polarities and ratios of SH and sSH, and SV and sSV arrivals that we determined from seismograms. The results of the relocations are commensurate with the distribution of seismicity observed in the recent era: hypocenters are shallow and intermediate in depth (0-200 km), and the events occur almost exclusively in areas known to be currently seismic. The frequent seismic activity in the vicinity of the Paria Peninsula, Venezuela, is clearly a persistent feature of the regional earthquake pattern; intermediate depth earthquakes indicative of subduction beneath the Caribbean plate occur here and along the Lesser Antilles arc. The Grenadines seismic gap is confirmed as an area of low seismic moment release throughout the historical era. Trinidad and the eastern Gulf of Paria were also largely quiescent. The new focal mechanisms, despite being a sparse data set, give significant insight into both subduction processes along the Lesser Antilles arc and into the shallow deformation of the Caribbean-South America plate boundary zone. The largest earthquake to have occurred in this region, the 19 March 1953 event (Mm=7.01), is a Lesser Antilles slab deformation event, and another earthquake in this region of the Lesser Antilles is probably a rarely-observed interplate thrust event. Shallow deformation in the plate boundary zone is complex and, near the Paria Penninsula, involves mixed southeastward thrusting and dextral strike-slip on east-striking faults, and secondarily, normal faulting. Bending of the subducting Atlantic-South American plate also seems to generate seisms. The rather high ratio of intraplate deformation to interplate deformation observed along the Lesser Antilles subduction zone in the more recent era seems to have been operative in the historical era as well.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-120
Number of pages34
JournalPure and Applied Geophysics PAGEOPH
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 1992


  • Historical earthquakes
  • focal mechanisms
  • relocations
  • southeastern Caribbean

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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