Seismotectonics of the Philippine Sea Plate

©USGS (copied from Taiwan 6.0 11 Apr 2012)

More information on regional seismicity and tectonics

The Philippine Sea plate is unusual in that its borders are nearly all zones of plate convergence. The Pacific plate is subducted into the mantle, south of Japan, beneath the Izu-Bonin and Mariana island arcs, which extend more than 3,000 km along the eastern margin of the Philippine Sea plate. This subduction zone is characterized by rapid plate convergence and high-level seismicity extending to depths of over 600 km. In spite of this extensive zone of plate convergence, the plate interface has been associated with few great (M>8.0) “megathrust” earthquakes. This relatively low seismic energy release is thought to result from relatively weakly coupling along the plate interface. These convergent plate margins are also associated with unusual zones of back-arc extension (along with resulting seismic activity) that decouple the volcanic island arcs from the remainder of the Philippine Sea Plate.

South of the Mariana arc, the Pacific plate is subducted beneath the Yap Islands along the Yap trench. The long zone of Pacific plate subduction at the eastern margin of the Philippine Sea Plate is responsible for the generation of the deep Izu-Bonin, Mariana, and Yap trenches as well as parallel chains of islands and volcanoes, typical of Circum-Pacific island arcs. Similarly, the northwestern margin of the Philippine Sea plate is subducting beneath the Eurasia plate along a convergent zone, extending from southern Honshu to the northeastern coast of Taiwan, manifested by the Ryukyu Islands and the Nansei-Shoto (Ryukyu) trench. The Ryukyu Subduction Zone is associated with a similar zone of back-arc extension, the Okinawa Trough. At Taiwan, the plate boundary is characterized by a zone of arc-continent collision, whereby the northern end of the Luzon island arc is colliding with the buoyant crust of the Eurasian continental margin offshore China.

Along its western margin, the Philippine Sea plate is associated with a zone of oblique convergence with the Sunda Plate. This highly active convergent plate boundary extends along both sides the Philippine Islands, from Luzon in the north to the Celebes Islands in the south. The tectonic setting of the Philippines is unusual in several respects: it is characterized by opposite-facing subduction systems on its east and west sides; the archipelago is cut by a major transcurrent fault, the Philippine Fault; and the arc complex itself is marked by active volcanism, faulting, and high seismic activity. Subduction of the Philippine Sea Plate occurs at the eastern margin of the archipelago along the Philippine Trench and its northern extension, the East Luzon Trough. The East Luzon Trough is thought to be an unusual example of a subduction zone in the process of formation, as the Philippine Trench system gradually extends northward. On the west side of Luzon, the Sunda Plate subducts eastward along a series of trenches, including the Manila Trench in the north, the smaller less well developed Negros Trench in the central Philippines, and the Sulu and Cotabato trenches in the south. At its northern and southern terminations, subduction at the Manila Trench is interrupted by arc-continent collision, between the northern Philippine arc and the Eurasian continental margin at Taiwan and between the Sulu-Borneo Block and Luzon at the island of Mindoro. The Philippine fault, which extends over 1200 km within the Philippine arc, is seismically active. The fault has been associated with major historical earthquakes, including the destructive M7.6 Luzon earthquake of 1990.

Seismic activity along the boundaries of the Philippine Sea Plate has produced 7 great (M>8.0) earthquakes and 250 large (M>7) events since the beginning of the 20th century. Among the most destructive events were the 1923 Kanto, the 1948 Fukui and the 1995 Kobe (Japan) earthquakes (99,000, 5,100, and 6,400 casualties, respectively), the 1935 and the 1999 Chi-Chi (Taiwan) earthquakes (3,300 and 2,500 casualties, respectively), and the 1976 M7.6 Moro Gulf and 1990 M7.6 Luzon (Philippines) earthquakes (7,100 and 2,400 casualties, respectively). There have also been a number of tsunami-generating events in the region, including the Moro Gulf earthquake noted above, whose tsunami resulted in more than 5000 deaths.

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