Last Updated 05/03/2017

Experimental evidence that thrust earthquake ruptures might open faults

Vahe Gabuchian, Ares J. Rosakis, Harsha S. Bhat, Raúl Madariaga & Hiroo Kanamori

Published online 01 May 2017

Many of Earth’s great earthquakes occur on thrust faults1. These earthquakes predominantly occur within subduction zones, such as the 2011 moment magnitude 9.0 eathquake in Tohoku-Oki, Japan, or along large collision zones, such as the 1999 moment magnitude 7.7 earthquake in Chi-Chi, Taiwan2. Notably, these two earthquakes had a maximum slip that was very close to the surface3, 4. This contributed to the destructive tsunami that occurred during the Tohoku-Oki event and to the large amount of structural damage caused by the Chi-Chi event. The mechanism that results in such large slip near the surface is poorly understood as shallow parts of thrust faults are considered to be frictionally stable5. Here we use earthquake rupture experiments to reveal the existence of a torquing mechanism of thrust fault ruptures near the free surface that causes them to unclamp and slip large distances. Complementary numerical modelling of the experiments confirms that the hanging-wall wedge undergoes pronounced rotation in one direction as the earthquake rupture approaches the free surface, and this torque is released as soon as the rupture breaks the free surface, resulting in the unclamping and violent ‘flapping’ of the hanging-wall wedge. Our results imply that the shallow extent of the seismogenic zone of a subducting interface is not fixed and can extend up to the trench during great earthquakes through a torquing mechanism.


Seafloor geodetic constraints on interplate coupling of the Nankai Trough megathrust zone

Yusuke Yokota, Tadashi Ishikawa, Shun-ichi Watanabe, Toshiharu Tashiro & Akira Asada

Nature 534, 374–377 (16 June 2016) doi:10.1038/nature17632 Received 04 November 2015 Accepted 25 February 2016 Published online 23 May 2016

Interplate megathrust earthquakes have inflicted catastrophic damage on human society. Such an earthquake is predicted to occur in the near future along the Nankai Trough off southwestern Japan—an economically active and densely populated area in which megathrust earthquakes have already occurred1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Megathrust earthquakes are the result of a plate-subduction mechanism and occur at slip-deficit regions (also known as ‘coupling’ regions)6, 7, where friction prevents plates from slipping against each other and the accumulated energy is eventually released forcefully. Many studies have attempted to capture distributions of slip-deficit rates (SDRs) in order to predict earthquakes8, 9, 10. However, these studies could not obtain a complete view of the earthquake source region, because they had no seafloor geodetic data. The Hydrographic and Oceanographic Department of the Japan Coast Guard (JHOD) has been developing a precise and sustainable seafloor geodetic observation network11 in this subduction zone to obtain information related to offshore SDRs. Here, we present seafloor geodetic observation data and an offshore interplate SDR-distribution model. Our data suggest that most offshore regions in this subduction zone have positive SDRs. Specifically, our observations indicate previously unknown regions of high SDR that will be important for tsunami disaster mitigation, and regions of low SDR that are consistent with distributions of shallow slow earthquakes and subducting seamounts. This is the first direct evidence that coupling conditions might be related to these seismological and geological phenomena. Our findings provide information for inferring megathrust earthquake scenarios and interpreting research on the Nankai Trough subduction zone.


The Parkfield tremors reveal slow and fast ruptures on the same asperity

Deepa Mele Veedu & Sylvain Barbot

Nature 532, 361–365 (21 April 2016) doi:10.1038/nature17190 Received 14 May 2015 Accepted 26 January 2016 Published online 04 April 2016

The deep extension of the San Andreas Fault is believed to be creeping, but the recent observations of tectonic tremors from these depths indicate a complex deformation style1. In particular, an isolated tremor source near Parkfield has been producing a sequence of low-frequency earthquakes2 that indicates an uncommon mechanism of stress accumulation and release. The tremor pattern regularly oscillated between three and six days from mid-2003 until it was disrupted by the 2004 magnitude 6.0 Parkfield earthquake. After that event, the tremor source ruptured only about every three days, but over the next two years it gradually returned to its initial alternating recurrence pattern. The mechanism that drives this recurrence pattern is unknown. Here we use physics-based models to show that the same tremor asperity—the region from which the low-frequency earthquakes radiate—can regularly slip in slow and fast ruptures, naturally resulting in recurrence intervals alternating between three and six days. This unusual slip behaviour occurs when the tremor asperity size is close to the critical nucleation size of earthquakes. We also show that changes in pore pressure following the Parkfield earthquake can explain the sudden change and gradual recovery of the recurrence intervals. Our findings suggest a framework for fault deformation in which the same asperity can release tectonic stress through both slow and fast ruptures.


Upper-plate controls on co-seismic slip in the 2011 magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-oki earthquake

Dan Bassett, David T. Sandwell, Yuri Fialko & Anthony B. Watts

Nature 531, 92–96 (03 March 2016) doi:10.1038/nature16945 Received 26 June 2015 Accepted 11 December 2015 Published online 02 March 2016

The March 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake was only the second giant (moment magnitude Mw ≥ 9.0) earthquake to occur in the last 50 years and is the most recent to be recorded using modern geophysical techniques. Available data place high-resolution constraints on the kinematics of earthquake rupture1, which have challenged prior knowledge about how much a fault can slip in a single earthquake and the seismic potential of a partially coupled megathrust interface2. But it is not clear what physical or structural characteristics controlled either the rupture extent or the amplitude of slip in this earthquake. Here we use residual topography and gravity anomalies to constrain the geological structure of the overthrusting (upper) plate offshore northeast Japan. These data reveal an abrupt southwest–northeast-striking boundary in upper-plate structure, across which gravity modelling indicates a south-to-north increase in the density of rocks overlying the megathrust of 150–200 kilograms per cubic metre. We suggest that this boundary represents the offshore continuation of the Median Tectonic Line, which onshore juxtaposes geological terranes composed of granite batholiths (in the north) and accretionary complexes (in the south)3. The megathrust north of the Median Tectonic Line is interseismically locked2, has a history of large earthquakes (18 with Mw > 7 since 1896) and produced peak slip exceeding 40 metres in the Tohoku-oki earthquake1. In contrast, the megathrust south of this boundary has higher rates of interseismic creep2, has not generated an earthquake with MJ > 7 (local magnitude estimated by the Japan Meteorological Agency) since 1923, and experienced relatively minor (if any) co-seismic slip in 20111. We propose that the structure and frictional properties of the overthrusting plate control megathrust coupling and seismogenic behaviour in northeast Japan.


Dehydration of lawsonite could directly trigger earthquakes in subducting oceanic crust

Keishi Okazaki & Greg Hirth

Nature 530, 81–84 (04 February 2016) doi:10.1038/nature16501 Received 17 August 2015 Accepted 26 November 2015 Published online 03 February 2016

Intermediate-depth earthquakes in cold subduction zones are observed within the subducting oceanic crust, as well as the mantle1, 2. In contrast, intermediate-depth earthquakes in hot subduction zones predominantly occur just below the Mohorovičić discontinuity1. These observations have stimulated interest in relationships between blueschist-facies metamorphism and seismicity, particularly through dehydration reactions involving the mineral lawsonite1, 2. Here we conducted deformation experiments on lawsonite, while monitoring acoustic emissions, in a Griggs-type deformation apparatus. The temperature was increased above the thermal stability of lawsonite, while the sample was deforming, to test whether the lawsonite dehydration reaction induces unstable fault slip. In contrast to similar tests on antigorite, unstable fault slip (that is, stick–slip) occurred during dehydration reactions in the lawsonite and acoustic emission signals were continuously observed. Microstructural observations indicate that strain is highly localized along the fault (R1 and B shears), and that the fault surface develops slickensides (very smooth fault surfaces polished by frictional sliding). The unloading slope during the unstable slip follows the stiffness of the apparatus at all experimental conditions, regardless of the strain rate and temperature ramping rate. A thermomechanical scaling factor3 for the experiments is within the range estimated for natural subduction zones, indicating the potential for unstable frictional sliding within natural lawsonite layers.


Scale dependence of rock friction at high work rate

Futoshi Yamashita, Eiichi Fukuyama, Kazuo Mizoguchi, Shigeru Takizawa, Shiqing Xu & Hironori Kawakata

Nature 528, 254–257 (10 December 2015) doi:10.1038/nature16138 Received 23 April 2015 Accepted 06 October 2015 Published online 09 December 2015

Determination of the frictional properties of rocks is crucial for an understanding of earthquake mechanics, because most earthquakes are caused by frictional sliding along faults. Prior studies using rotary shear apparatus1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 revealed a marked decrease in frictional strength, which can cause a large stress drop and strong shaking, with increasing slip rate and increasing work rate. (The mechanical work rate per unit area equals the product of the shear stress and the slip rate.) However, those important findings were obtained in experiments using rock specimens with dimensions of only several centimetres, which are much smaller than the dimensions of a natural fault (of the order of 1,000 metres). Here we use a large-scale biaxial friction apparatus with metre-sized rock specimens to investigate scale-dependent rock friction. The experiments show that rock friction in metre-sized rock specimens starts to decrease at a work rate that is one order of magnitude smaller than that in centimetre-sized rock specimens. Mechanical, visual and material observations suggest that slip-evolved stress heterogeneity on the fault accounts for the difference. On the basis of these observations, we propose that stress-concentrated areas exist in which frictional slip produces more wear materials (gouge) than in areas outside, resulting in further stress concentrations at these areas. Shear stress on the fault is primarily sustained by stress-concentrated areas that undergo a high work rate, so those areas should weaken rapidly and cause the macroscopic frictional strength to decrease abruptly. To verify this idea, we conducted numerical simulations assuming that local friction follows the frictional properties observed on centimetre-sized rock specimens. The simulations reproduced the macroscopic frictional properties observed on the metre-sized rock specimens. Given that localized stress concentrations commonly occur naturally, our results suggest that a natural fault may lose its strength faster than would be expected from the properties estimated from centimetre-sized rock samples.



Western US intermountain seismicity caused by changes in upper mantle flow

Thorsten W. Becker, Anthony R. Lowry, Claudio Faccenna, Brandon Schmandt, Adrian Borsa & Chunquan Yu


Nature 524, 458–461 (27 August 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14867 Received 01 March 2015 Accepted 22 June 2015 Published online 26 August 2015


Understanding the causes of intraplate earthquakes is challenging, as it requires extending plate tectonic theory to the dynamics of continental deformation. Seismicity in the western United States away from the plate boundary is clustered along a meandering, north–south trending ‘intermountain’ belt1. This zone coincides with a transition from thin, actively deforming to thicker, less tectonically active crust and lithosphere. Although such structural gradients have been invoked to explain seismicity localization2, 3, the underlying cause of seismicity remains unclear. Here we show results from improved mantle flow models that reveal a relationship between seismicity and the rate change of ‘dynamic topography’ (that is, vertical normal stress from mantle flow). The associated predictive skill is greater than that of any of the other forcings we examined. We suggest that active mantle flow is a major contributor to seismogenic intraplate deformation, while gravitational potential energy variations have a minor role. Seismicity localization should occur where convective changes in vertical normal stress are modulated by lithospheric strength heterogeneities. Our results on deformation processes appear consistent with findings from other mobile belts4, and imply that mantle flow plays a significant and quantifiable part in shaping topography, tectonics, and seismic hazard within intraplate settings.


Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13778

Prevalence of viscoelastic relaxation after the 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake


Volume 512 Number 7514 pp231-342




Volume 510 Number 7505 pp312-436

Volume 509 Number 7501 pp399-526

Volume 509 Number 7499 pp134-254

Volume 493 Number 7433 pp451-570 24 January 2013

Stable creeping fault segments can become destructive as a result of dynamic weakening

An earthquake source model in which stable, rate-strengthening behaviour at low slip rates is combined with coseismic weakening due to rapid shear heating of pore fluids, allowing unstable slip to occur in segments that can creep between events, explains a number of both long-term and coseismic observations of faults that hosted the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake and the 1999 Chi-Chi earthquake.

Fault healing promotes high-frequency earthquakes in laboratory experiments and on natural faults

Volume 491 Number 7422 pp7-154 1 November 2012

Laboratory experiments and seismological observations show that increased fault healing causes a disproportionately large amount of high-frequency seismic radiation to be produced during fault rupture, which may help to explain recent observations of large megathrust earthquakes.

April 2012 intra-oceanic seismicity off Sumatra boosted by the Banda-Aceh megathrust

The two earthquakes of respective magnitudes 8.6 and 8.2 that occurred off the coast of the Sumatra subduction zone on 11 April 2012 are shown to be part of a continuing boost of the intraplate deformation between India and Australia that followed the Aceh 2004 and Nias 2005 megathrust earthquakes.

See also

En échelon and orthogonal fault ruptures of the 11 April 2012 great intraplate earthquakes

The magnitude 8.7 earthquake that occurred off the coast of the Sumatra subduction zone on 11 April 2012 is shown to have had an extraordinarily complex four-fault rupture; these great ruptures represent large lithospheric deformation that may eventually lead to a localized boundary between the Indian and Australian plates.

See also

The 11 April 2012 east Indian Ocean earthquake triggered large aftershocks worldwide

Although strong remote aftershocks are exceedingly rare, their rate increased fivefold during the six days following the 2012 east Indian Ocean earthquake, perhaps as a result of the strike-slip nature of the 2012 event or a build up of close-to-failure nucleation sites.

See also

Continental collision slowing due to viscous mantle lithosphere rather than topography (29 February 2012)
Marin Kristen Clark

Origin of Columbia River flood basalt controlled by propagating rupture of the Farallon slab (15 February 2012)
Liu and Stegman

Correlation between deep fluids, tremor and creep along the central San Andreas fault (30 November 2011)
Becken et al.

Frictional ageing from interfacial bonding and the origins of rate and state friction (30 November 2011)
Li et al.

Subduction dynamics and the origin of Andean orogeny and the Bolivian orocline (23 November 2011)
Capitanio et al.

East Antarctic rifting triggers uplift of the Gamburtsev Mountains (16 November 2011)
Ferraccioli et al.

Coseismic and postseismic slip of the 2011 magnitude-9 Tohoku-Oki earthquake (15 June 2011)
S. Ozawa et al.

Shaping mobile belts by small-scale convection (3 June 2010)
C. Facenna and T. Becker

Striations, duration, migration and tidal response in deep tremor (15 July 2010)
S. Ide

Triggering of New Madrid seismicity by late-Pleistocene erosion (29 July 2010)
E. Calais et al.

Near-simultaneous great earthquakes at Tonga megathrust and outer rise in September 2009 (19 August 2010)
J. Beavan et al.

The 2009 Samoa-Tonga great earthquake triggered doublet (19 August 2010)
T. Lay et al.

Lithospheric layering in the North American craton (26 August 2010)
H. Yuan and B. Romanowicz

Olivine water contents in the continental lithosphere and the longevity of cratons (2 September 2010)
A. Peslier et al.

Remote triggering of fault-strength changes on the San Andreas fault at Parkfield (1 October 2009)
Taira et al.

Fluid and deformation regime of an advancing subduction system at Marlborough, New Zealand (6 August 2009)
Wannamaker et al.

BSSA Last Updated 3/7/12

Scaling Relationships of Source Parameters for Slow Slip Events (February 2012)
Gao et al.

A New Perspective on the Geometry of the San Andreas Fault in Southern California and Its Relationship to Lithospheric Structure (February 2012)
Fuis et al.

Spontaneous Dynamic Rupture Propagation beyond Fault Discontinuities: Effect of Thermal Pressurization (February 2012)
Urata et al.

Long-Term Creep Rates on the Hayward Fault: Evidence for Controls on the Size and Frequency of Large Earthquakes (February 2012)
Lienkaemper et al.

Nonvolcanic Tremor in the Aleutian Arc (December 2011)
Peterson et al.

Science Last Updated 3/21/12

A Change in the Geodynamics of Continental Growth 3 Billion Years Ago (16 March 2012)
Dhuime et al.

Plate Motions and Stresses from Global Dynamic Models (17 February 2012)
Ghosh and Holt

Near-Field Deformation from the El Mayor–Cucapah Earthquake Revealed by Differential LIDAR (10 February 2012)
Oskin et al.

Propagation of Slow Slip Leading Up to the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake (January 19 2012)
Kato et al.

The 2011 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake: Displacement Reaching the Trench Axis (2 December 2011)
Fujiwara et al.

The 2010 Mw 8.8 Maule Megathrust Earthquake of Central Chile, Monitored by GPS (17 June 2011)
Vigny et al.

Shallow Dynamic Overshoot and Energetic Deep Rupture in the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake (17 June 2011)
Ide et al. 

Global surface wave tomography using seismic hum (2 October 2009)
Nishida et al.

Underplating in the Himalaya-Tibet Colision Zone Revealed by the Hi-CLIMB Experiment (11 September 2009)
Nabelek et al.

Adjoint Tomography of the Southern California Crust (21 August 2009)
Tape et al.

Nonvolcanic Tremor Evolution and the San Simeon and Parkfield, California, Earthquakes (10 July 2009)
Nadeau and Guilhem