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date: 28 February 2021

Great Earthquakes on Plate Boundarieslocked

  • Thorne LayThorne LayDepartment of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz


Earthquakes involve sudden shear sliding motion between large rock masses across internal contact surfaces called faults. The slip on the fault releases strain energy previously stored in the surrounding rock that accumulated due to frictional resistance to sliding. Most earthquakes are directly caused by plate tectonics, and locate in the cool, brittle rock near Earth’s surface. Events with seismic magnitude measured 8.0 or greater are called great earthquakes and involve slip of from several to tens of meters across faults with lengths from 100 to more than 1,000 kilometers. These huge ruptures tend to occur on or near plate boundaries; the largest are on shallow-dipping plate boundary faults (megathrusts) found in compressional regions called subduction zones, where one tectonic plate is thrusting under another. Some great earthquakes occur within bending or detaching plates as they deform seaward of or below a subduction zone. Yet others occur on plate boundary strike-slip faults where two plates are shearing horizontally past one another, or within deforming plate interiors. Elastic wave energy released during the fault sliding is recorded and studied by seismologists to determine the fault location, orientation and sense of sliding motion, amount of radiated elastic wave energy, and distribution of slip on the fault during the event (co-seismic slip). Geodetic methods measure elastic strain accumulation prior to an earthquake, co-seismic slip, and afterslip on the fault that occurs without earthquakes, along with viscous deformation of the mantle as it responds to the fault offset. Great earthquakes commonly locate under the ocean, and the sudden motion of the seafloor generates tsunami—gravitational water waves that can be recorded with ocean floor pressure sensors (these waves are also used to determine co-seismic slip). As seismic, geodetic. and tsunami modeling methods have progressed over the past 50 years, our understanding of great earthquake rupture processes and earthquake interactions has advanced steadily in the context of plate tectonics and improved understanding of rock friction. All faults have heterogeneous frictional properties inferred from non-uniform sliding during each event, with areas of large slip instabilities called asperities having slip-velocity weakening friction and other areas having slip-velocity strengthening friction that results in stable sliding. The seismic wave shaking and tsunami waves can cause great devastation for humanity, so efforts are made to anticipate future earthquake hazards. As plate tectonics steadily move Earth’s plates, elastic strain around plate boundary faults accumulates and releases in a repeated stick-slip sliding process that causes a limited degree of regularity of faulting. Given the history of prior earthquakes on a given fault, we can identify seismic gaps where future slip events are likely to occur. With geodesy we can also now measure locations of accumulating slip deficit relative to plate motions, as well as variation in seismic coupling, which characterizes the fraction of plate motion accounted for by earthquake failure.

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