Abstract

The Lesser Antilles subduction zone has produced no recent strong thrust earthquakes, making it difficult to quantify the seismic hazard from such events. The Lesser Antilles arc has a low subduction rate and an accretionary wedge that is very wide at its southern end. To investigate the effect of the wedge on seismogenesis, numerical models of forearc thermal structure were constructed along six transects perpendicular to the arc in order to determine the thermally predicted width of the seismogenic zone. The geometry of each section is constrained by published seismic profiles and crustal models derived from gravity and seismic data and by earthquake hypocenters at depth. A major constraint on the deep part of the model is that mantle temperature beneath the volcanic arc should achieve a temperature of 1,100°C to generate partial melts. Predicted surface heat flow is compared to the available heat flow observations. Thermal modeling results indicate a systematic southward increase in the width of the seismogenic zone, more than doubling in width from north to south and corresponding to a dramatic southward increase in forearc width (distance from the arc to the deformation front of the accretionary wedge). The minimum width of the seismogenic zone (distance between the intersections of the subduction interface with the 150°C and 350°C isotherms) increases from about 80 km, north of 16°N, to 230 km, at 13°N. The maximum width (between the 100°C and 450°C isotherms) ranges from about 150 km in the north to up to 320 km in the south. This large variation in the width of the seismogenic zone is a consequence of the increasing width of the accretionary wedge to the south, caused by the increased thickness of sediment on the subducting plate. There is good agreement between the thermally predicted seismogenic limits and the sparse distribution of recorded thrust earthquakes, which are observed only in the northern portion of the arc. Possible scenarios for mega-thrust earthquakes are discussed. Depending on the segment length (along-strike) of the rupture plane, the occurrence of an event of magnitude 8–9 cannot be excluded.

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