Complex rupture during the 12 January 2010 Haiti earthquake

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Initially, the devastating Mw 7.0, 12 January 2010 Haiti earthquake seemed to involve straightforward accommodation of oblique relative motion between the Caribbean and North American plates along the Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault zone. Here, we combine seismological observations, geologic field data and space geodetic measurements to show that, instead, the rupture process may have involved slip on multiple faults. Primary surface deformation was driven by rupture on blind thrust faults with only minor, deep, lateral slip along or near the main Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault zone; thus the event only partially relieved centuries of accumulated left-lateral strain on a small part of the plate-boundary system. Together with the predominance of shallow off-fault thrusting, the lack of surface deformation implies that remaining shallow shear strain will be released in future surface-rupturing earthquakes on the Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault zone, as occurred in inferred Holocene and probable historic events. We suggest that the geological signature of this earthquake—broad warping and coastal deformation rather than surface rupture along the main fault zone—will not be easily recognized by standard palaeoseismic studies. We conclude that similarly complex earthquakes in tectonic environments that accommodate both translation and convergence—such as the San Andreas fault through the Transverse Ranges of California—may be missing from the prehistoric earthquake record.

At a glance


  1. Tectonic setting of the 2010 Leogane earthquake.
    Figure 1: Tectonic setting of the 2010 Léogâne earthquake.

    The inset shows the broad configuration of the Caribbean–North America plate boundary in the region of Hispaniola, with major faults (red) and the relative-plate-motion vector (arrow). The main panel shows the epicentral region of the 12 January 2010 earthquake. Aftershocks (yellow circles), sized by magnitude, and CMT solutions are shown at their NEIC locations. The surface projection of coseismic slip on each major subfault is coloured and contoured (dashed lines) by slip amplitude, at 50cm intervals. The approximate location of the EPGF is shown in red. Numbered blue squares represent major population centres: 1=Port-au-Prince, 2=Léogâne, 3=Port Royal.

  2. Observed coastal uplift and vertical-deformation signal from InSAR.
    Figure 2: Observed coastal uplift and vertical-deformation signal from InSAR.

    Circles denote observation points, sized and coloured by their amounts of uplift (blue denotes subsidence). The white star represents the NEIC hypocentre. Major population centres are shown with white squares (PaP=Port-au-Prince). The colour map represents the vertical component of ground motion from the sum of the ascending and descending interferograms. The approximate location of the EPGF is shown in red. a, Siderastrea siderea microatoll uplifted by 0.64±0.11m at Beloc site. Coral die-down was 0.45m at the time of measurement. b, Deep fractures caused by lateral spreading along the coast at Bellevue. c,d, Images of patch reef adjacent to Beloc before the earthquake (c) in 2005 (Digital Globe) and after the earthquake (d) in January 2010 (Google). In d the bleached uplifted reef reflects tectonic uplift whereas extensive lateral spreading along the coast has caused localized secondary subsidence. e, Estimates of the east component of the ground motion from the difference of the ascending and descending interferograms.

  3. Three-dimensional view of proposed fault geometry for Leogane earthquake rupture.
    Figure 3: Three-dimensional view of proposed fault geometry for Léogâne earthquake rupture.

    View to the northwest. Thick solid lines are the surface projection of each fault. Dash–dot lines link planes to cross-sectional projections of their slip distributions. Arrows represent the slip direction, scaled by amplitude, for each fault. Rupture initiates on the steep EPGF (A) at the earthquake hypocentre (star), extending to the west. The backside of the shallowly north-dipping blind thrust (Léogâne fault, B) is visible near the hypocentre and to the west. Rupture also occurs on a south-dipping structure to the east of the hypocentre (C), whose surface projection occurs north of the peninsula coastline. On each fault plane, black dashed lines are isochrons of the earthquake rupture, in 2s increments (6s contour labelled for reference). PaP=Port-au-Prince, L=Léogâne, PG=Petit Goâve, G=Ile de la Gonave.

  4. Plate-boundary moment release.
    Figure 4: Plate-boundary moment release.

    Cross-sectional projections of the amount of horizontal plate-boundary moment released during the 2010 Léogâne earthquake, as a percentage of the moment accumulated since 1770, based on our preferred rupture model for the earthquake. Fault planes A, B and C correlate to the steeply south-dipping EPGF fault trace, the more shallowly north-dipping fault most dominant in the earthquake rupture and the eastern, south-dipping 45° thrust structure, respectively (also shown in Fig. 3).


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Author information


  1. US Geological Survey, Golden, Colorado 80401, USA

    • G. P. Hayes,
    • R. W. Briggs,
    • A. J. Crone &
    • R. Gold
  2. Synergetics Inc., Fort Collins, Colorado 80524, USA

    • G. P. Hayes
  3. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • A. Sladen,
    • T. Ito &
    • M. Simons
  4. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • E. J. Fielding
  5. US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

    • C. Prentice
  6. US Geological Survey, Pasadena, California 91106, USA

    • K. Hudnut
  7. University of Texas Institute of Geophysics, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas, Austin 78758, USA

    • P. Mann &
    • F. W. Taylor
  8. Nagoya University 464-8601, Japan

    • T. Ito


G.P.H. and R.W.B. were responsible for writing the main manuscript and supplement and generating figures. G.P.H. conducted seismic fault inversions and moment-balance calculations. E.J.F. carried out InSAR analysis. G.P.H., R.W.B., A.S. and E.J.F. were jointly responsible for the fault model. A.S. carried out joint inversions in collaboration with E.J.F., M.S. and T.I. R.W.B., C.P., K.H., P.M., F.W.T., A.J.C. and R.G. were all involved in field studies and contributed data and interpretations from these studies. PALSAR data were provided to T.I. under the JAXA cooperative agreement. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results and discussion of ideas in this study.

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