A detailed study of the spatial distribution of precisely located hypocenters of South American earthquakes that occurred between lat 0° and 45°S shows that the data can be explained by the simple model of a descending oceanic plate beneath a continental plate and that the following conditions obtain: (1) The hypocenters clearly define five segments of inclined seismic zones, in each of which the zones have relatively uniform dips. The segments beneath northern and central Peru (about lat 2° to 15° S) and beneath central Chile (about lat 27° to 33° S) have very small dips (about 10°), whereas the three segments beneath southern Ecuador (about lat 0° to 2°S), beneath southern Peru and northern Chile (about lat 15° to 27°S), and beneath southern Chile (about lat 33° to 45°S) have steeper dips (25° to 30°). No clear evidence exists for further segmentation of the descending Nazca plate beneath South America. If the two flat segments are in contact with the lower boundary of the continental plate, the thickness of that plate is less than approximately 130 km. This is in marked contrast to the reports of thicknesses exceeding 300 km for the South American continental plate. (2) There is considerable seismic activity within the upper 50 km of the overriding South American plate. This seismic activity is well separated from the inclined seismic zones and probably occurs in the crustal part of the South American plate. Thus, hypocenters in South America are not evenly distributed through about a 300-km-thick zone as previously described. (3) A remarkable correlation exists between the two flat segments of the subducted Nazca plate and the absence of Quaternary volcanism on the South American plate. (4) The transition from the flat Peru segment to the steeper Chile segment is abrupt and is interpreted as a tear in the descending Nazca plate. The tear is located approximately beneath the northern limit of the Altiplano (a high plateau in the Andes), and about 200 km south of the projection of the oceanic Nazca ridge down the subduction zone. (5) A gap in seismic activity exists between depths of 320 and 525 km.

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