The United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 7.1 Earthquake at a depth of 51 km, approximately 55 km to the south of the city of Peubla in the Mexican State of the same name, slightly before 1.15 pm local time (slightly before 6.15 pm GMT) on Tuesday 19 September 2017. The event has caused extensive destruction in the states of Puebla and Morales as well as the Mexico City Federal District, with extensive building collapses in urban areas and 226 confirmed deaths at the time of writing. The event was felt as far away as Austin in Texas and San Salvador in El Salvador.
Collapsed building in Mexico City following the 19 September 2017 Earthquake. Daniel Cardenas/Anadulu/Getty Images.
Mexico is located on the southernmost part of the North American Plate. To the south, along the Middle American Trench, which lies off the southern coast off Mexico, the Cocos Plate is being subducted under the North American Plate, passing under southern Mexico as it sinks into the Earth. This is not a smooth process, and the plates frequently stick together then break apart as the pressure builds up, causing Earthquakes on the process.
The approximate location of the 19 September 2017 Mexico Earthquake. USGS.
The Cocos Plate is thought to have formed about 23 million years ago, when the Farallon Plate, an ancient tectonic plate underlying the East Pacific, split in two, forming the Cocos Plate to the north and the Nazca Plate to the south. Then, roughly 10 million years ago, the northwesternmost part of the Cocos Plate split of to form the Rivera Plate, south of Beja California.
In a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, in 2012, a team led by Igor Stubailo of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles, published a model of the subduction zone beneath Mexico using data from seismic monitoring stations belonging to the Mesoamerican Seismic Experiment, the Network of Autonomously Recording Seismographs, the USArray, Mapping the Rivera Subduction Zone and the Mexican Servicio Sismologico Nacional.
Partially collapsed school in Mexico City following the 19 September 2017 Earthquake. EPA/Shutterstock.
The seismic monitoring stations were able to monitor not just Earthquakes in Mexico, but also Earthquakes in other parts of the world, monitoring the rate at which compression waves from these quakes moved through the rocks beneath Mexico, and how the structure of the rocks altered the movement of these waves.
Collapsed building in the city of Jojutla in Morales State, Mexico, following the 19 September 2017 Earthquake. Carlos Rodriguez/AP.
Based upon the results from these monitoring stations, Stubailo et al. came to the conclusion that the Cocos Plate was split into two beneath Mexico, and that the two plates are subducting at different angles, one steep and one shallow. Since the rate at which a plate melts reflects its depth within the Earth, the steeper angled plate melts much closer to the subduction zone than the shallower angled plate, splitting the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt into sections above the different segments of the Cocos Plate, and causing it to apparently curve away from the subduction zone.
Top the new model of the Cocos Plate beneath Mexico, split into two sections (A & B) subducting at differing angles. (C) Represents the Rivera Plate, subducting at a steeper angle than either section of the Cocos Plate. The Split between the two has been named the Orozco Fracture Zone (OFZ) which is shown extended across the Cocos Plate; in theory this might in future split the Cocos Plate into two segments (though not on any human timescale). Bottom Left, the position of the segments on a map of Mexico. Darker area is the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, orange circles are volcanoes, brown triangles are seismic monitoring stations, yellow stars are major cities. Bottom Right, an alternative model showing the subducting plate twisted but not split. This did not fit the data. Stubailo et al. (2012).
The two major Earthquakes that have happened in Mexico this September, on the seventh and nineteenth of the month, are thought to relate to this fragmenting of the Cocos Plate, with the events thought likely to have been caused by tearing along one of these splits.
Witness accounts of Earthquakes can help geologists to understand these events, and the structures that cause them. The international non-profit organisation Earthquake Report is interested in hearing from people who may have felt this event; if you felt this quake then you can report it to Earthquake Report here.
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