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The plate boundary between the Caribbean and South America is ripe for a major earthquake




View of Venezuela Square in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit: George Miquelina

Faults along the central portion of the tectonic plate boundary between the Caribbean and South America are primed to trigger a powerful earthquake, posing a potentially serious hazard to northern Venezuela, an international team of scientists said.

“Most of the populated cities in this region lie on plate boundaries, so it’s important to understand seismic hazard,” said Michael Higgins, who led the research as part of his Ph.D. at Penn State. “We found that a large portion of the plate boundary between the Caribbean and South America is closed and capable of producing earthquakes of magnitude 8.”

The boundary stretches for about 550 miles as two tectonic plates slide past each other from northern Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea in the west to Trinidad and Tobago in the east. Multiple faults run along the boundary, and the region is prone to earthquakes.

“There were many devastating earthquakes on this board, especially magnitude 7 and above around the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in 1812 and 1900,” said Higgins, who graduated in the spring of 2021. A similarly large earthquake has seismic hazard implications for Caracas and surrounding urban areas in northern Venezuela.”

The team, led by Penn State scientists, combined GPS and Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) data to monitor small changes on the ground along the boundary and used that to model where stress builds up along faults, indicating where earthquakes are likely to occur.

“This is the first time this part of the Caribbean – the plate boundary in South America has been investigated, and our results show where significant strain accumulates,” said Peter Lavimina, professor of Earth sciences and Higgin’s advisor.

The faults at the eastern end of the boundary are creeping, with one exception, which means the plates slither through each other smoothly. Western defects are locked, which means they are suspended and unable to move. When this happens, the stress builds up until the plates snap off, triggering an earthquake, the scientists said.

“Typically this strain is mitigated by rupture during an earthquake or free slip, which is called creep,” Higgins said. “We found that where there have been large historical earthquakes, there is a significant amount of elastic stress build-up. Where there have been many earthquakes of small magnitude or few earthquakes, there has been virtually no elastic stress buildup.”

The Caribbean plate moves about 20 mm annually to the east relative to the South American plate, and the researchers found that one slip fault on the island of Trinidad is responsible for accommodating 70% of the relative movement.

“We knew that the central extent fault in Trinidad was crawling and accommodating approximately 70% of the relative plate movement; however, our new results show that the fault is crawling across the entire island,” said LaFemina.

This is the first study to combine GPS and InSAR technologies to study the entire length of the plate boundary. The scientists said the findings, recently published in the journal Tectonics, could help guide future seismic risk decisions in northern Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.

“It is very difficult to assess the risks of a magnitude 8 earthquake; it includes not only loss of life, but economic damage downstream,” Higgins said. “Because this region is somewhat dependent on oil production, a major earthquake that damages infrastructure can disrupt their economies.”

GPS data reveals potential earthquake, tsunami risk in northwest Colombia Provided by Penn State University

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