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Study: Quartz Could Predict Earthquakes

March 17, 2011

The mineral quartz may play a key role in the formation of earthquake faults, mountains, and valleys, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The research, which was led by Utah State University geophysicist Anthony Lowry and Marta Perez-Gussinye of the University of London, discovered that when high concentrations of this common mineral were found near the Earth’s surface, they could create weak spots in the crust which, according to Sid Perkins of Science Now, could ultimately “determine where mountain ranges form and continents rift apart.”

“On average, quartz–a chemically stable mineral particularly common in granites–makes up about 12% of Earth’s crust,” Perkins continued, noting that it can come in several different forms, “including sand grains and semiprecious gems such as agate and amethyst.”

“These crystalline minerals are typically hard at Earth’s surface, but they readily soften and flow at the temperatures and pressures found deep within Earth’s crust–characteristics that make quartz one of the weakest minerals in that veneer,” the Science Now writer added. “Accordingly, lab studies show that the abundance of quartz in a rock is one of the key factors influencing its tendency to flow under heat and pressure.”

Using that knowledge as a basis, Lowry and Perez-Gussinye utilized a computer program known as Earthscope, which allowed them to take an inside look at the structure of North America’s continental plate. According to the Daily Mail, what they discovered was “a link between quartz deposits and geological events that they said was ‘completely eye-popping’.”

Because quartz contains water that is trapped under normal circumstanced but is released when it become heated under stress, Lowry and Perez-Gussinye report that quartz minerals were, in the worlds of the Daily Mail, “a good indicator of weaknesses in the earth’s crust.”

Likewise, in a press release, the National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that the researchers discovered that it plays a “key role in initiating the churning chain of events that cause Earth’s surface to crack, wrinkle, fold and stretch into mountains, plains and valleys.”

Lowry and Perez-Gussinye say that the process is active in places such as Japan, Southern California and Yellowstone National Park, but dormant in other regions, including the Appalachian Mountains.

The discovery could help experts “predict earthquake tremors and volcanic eruptions,” according to the Daily Mail, while Lowry has already started a second study on the matter, focusing his efforts at locations in the Midwest–specifically, the New Madrid Fault–and could ultimately move on to the Appalachian Mountains for an in-depth analysis there, according to Laura Zuckerman of Reuters.

Image Caption: Quartz may play a major role in the movements of continents, known as plate tectonics. Credit: USGS

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