Biomarkers heat up during earthquakes: New evidence of seismic slip in the rock record

Savage, Heather Moore; Polissar, Pratigya Jeremy; Sheppard, Rachel; Rowe, Christie D.; Brodsky, Emily E.

During earthquakes, faults heat up due to frictional work. However, evidence of heating from paleoearthquakes along exhumed faults remains scarce. Here we describe a method using thermal maturation of organic molecules in sedimentary rock to determine whether a fault has experienced differential heating compared to surrounding rocks. We demonstrate the utility of this method on an ancient, pseudotachylyte-hosting megathrust at Pasagshak Point, Alaska. Measurements of the ratio of thermally stable to thermally unstable compounds (diamondoids/n-alkanes) show that the melt-bearing rocks have higher thermal maturity than surrounding rocks. Furthermore, the mineralogy of the survivor grains and the presence of any organic molecules allow us to constrain the temperature rise during the ancient earthquakes to 840–1170 °C above ambient temperatures of ∼260 °C. From this temperature rise, we estimate that the frictional work of the earthquake was ∼105–228 MJ/m2. Using experimental friction measurements as a constraint, we estimate that the minimum slip necessary for heating was ∼1–8 m. This paper demonstrates that biomarkers will be a useful tool to identify seismic slip along faults without frictional melt.

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