Paper of the Month – Bubbles and seismic waves

Modified figure based on “Tiny Bubbles” by frankieleon 

Our paper of the month is  Bubbles attenuate elastic waves at seismic frequencies: First experimental evidence” (N. Tisato et al., 2015) commented by Luca De Siena.

Luca De Siena is Lecturer in Geophysics at the School of Geoscience, University of Aberdeen (UK). He received his PhD from the University of Bologna (Italy) with a scholarship from the INGV-Osservatorio Vesuviano for his work on seismic attenuation imaging of Mount Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei volcanoes. During his postdoc at the Institut für Geophysik, Westfälische Wilhelms Universität (Münster, Germany), Luca worked on the development of novel imaging techniques using stochastic wave propagation, whose application has led to novel attenuation and scattering models of Deception Island (Antarctica), Tenerife (Spain), and Mount St. Helens (US) volcanoes. His research interests include the development and application of attenuation and scattering tomography at lithospheric and mantle scales, and in sub-basalt/reservoir settings.

Luca will present us a paper by Tisato et al. that finally provides experimental evidence on the effects of fluids and gasses on seismic attenuation. The results nicely connect seismology with rock physics, and are important for any seismologist interested in using amplitude information to track fluids in settings, like volcanoes and reservoirs, where they represent a clear hazard/resource. The paper gives insight into processes that open a new seismology-rock physics research path, and better connects our Division with Geochemistry and Volcanology.

“Seismic attenuation is an outstanding tool to image the physical and thermal properties of the lithosphere, particularly in volcanic areas. But any seismologist studying and imaging attenuation in 3D is aware of a long-standing issue with researchers in different disciplines, such as petrology and volcanology: they want magma, and they will see it in our model. Since attenuation is so sensitive to hot structures and physical changes they will just pick an anomaly and model a sill.

Probably, also the seismologist wants that anomaly to be magma, in order to publish the highest-impact journals and be highly cited. For the average reader and the editor of these journals, there is in fact an ocean (of interest) between the “Seismic attenuation imaging of Yellowstone magma sill” and the “Seismic attenuation imaging of a high-attenuation domain under Yellowstone caldera that could be a magma sill/fluid reservoir/hot rock topping melting, please pick one”. The truth is we still have a long way to be able to characterize that domain in terms of magma/fluids/heterogeneity just by looking at seismic attenuation.

In their paper, Tisato et al. take a step towards this direction by concentrating on bubbles: in a laboratory, they prove that these microscopic objects are able to attenuate seismic waves at frequencies we use in the field. In addition, the best way to model this attenuation for imaging purposes is wave-induced-gas-exsolution-dissolution (WIGED), which I knew was an effective model to reproduce high seismic attenuation in magmas. Finally, a way to prove that magma fills all my low-Q areas? Not so much.

Bubbles are in fact crucial ingredients to model attenuation in fluids, and their relative percentage reduces and distorts seismic amplitudes in ways I have seen in seismic volcanic waveforms. I first read the paper with amazement at what our colleagues in rock-physics can actually pull out today. They can reproduce the physical processes I have been using throughout my career for imaging the Earth in their laboratories. The demonstration that the WIGED model is most effective to describe attenuation provides us with an ideal analytical input to image the Earth with attenuation, linking to petrological quantities related to the physical and chemical state of the Earth. The study thus provides us with an opening to multi-scale laboratory- field imaging techniques using attenuation.

The main strength of the work other researchers and industry will see is its application to fluid/gas monitoring. The use of seismic tomography based on WIGED is potentially a novel 4D technique better apt to monitor hazardous volcanic and reservoir structures. To me, the paper is the demonstration that seismology can aim to characterize the Earth and its complex processes at scales so far unexplored, once correct theoretical models and experimental evidences are provided, providing more reliable constraints to other disciplines.

The questions that came to my mind after reading it: Is the scale and level of heterogeneity in the laboratory the same I use in forward modeling? What if, with their results, I would be able to apply attenuation imaging to sample scale? And maybe use poroelasticity to link Q with porosity and permeability? A paper that lets you with so many ideas and is so good at connecting seismology with other disciplines is rare, and certainly worth reading.”

Reference: Tisato, N., Quintal, B., Chapman, S., Podladchikov, Y., & Burg, J. P. (2015). Bubbles attenuate elastic waves at seismic frequencies: First experimental evidence. Geophysical Research Letters, 42(10), 3880-3887.

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This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts Artal to pitch your idea.

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