Earthquake supercycle in subduction zones controlled by the width of the seismogenic zone

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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A supercycle describes a long-term cluster of differently-sized megathrust earthquakes, leading up to the final complete failure of a subduction zone segment1, 2. The precise controls on supercycles are unclear, although structural and frictional heterogeneities are proposed1. We recognize that supercycles are suggested to occur in those regions1, 2, 3, 4 where the estimated downdip width of the seismogenic zone5, 6, 7 is larger than average. Here we investigate the link between supercycles and the seismogenic zone downdip width using a two-dimensional numerical model8. In our simulations, the first megathrust earthquakes in a supercycle generally rupture only the outermost parts of the seismogenic zone. These partial ruptures are stopped owing to a large excess of strength over stress, and transfer stresses towards the centre of the seismogenic zone. In addition to the continued tectonic loading, they thereby gradually reduce the strength excess so that the largest megathrust events finally rupture the entire seismogenic zone and release most of the accumulated stress. A greater width increases the average strength excess and thus favours supercycles over ordinary cycles of only similarly sized complete ruptures. Our results imply that larger than thus far observed earthquakes could conclude a supercycle where seismogenic zone widths are larger than average.

At a glance


  1. Downdip width of seismogenic zones and proposed supercycles.
    Figure 1: Downdip width of seismogenic zones and proposed supercycles.

    Downdip seismogenic zone width values averaged over estimates from refs 5, 6, 7 (Supplementary Table 1). The mean value of all estimates (111 km) is indicated. Dotted lines indicate those subduction zones where only one estimate is used. Subduction zones for which supercycles have been proposed are shown with black circles (for references see main text).

  2. Long-term and short-term characteristics of wide (LW) and narrow (SW) downdip width reference models.
    Figure 2: Long-term and short-term characteristics of wide (LW) and narrow (SW) downdip width reference models.

    ac, Functions and parameters, averaged over the downdip width of the respective seismogenic zone (Methods). Detrended, cumulative sum of displacements over time (a), evolution of strength excess (b) and S parameter (c). Colours of each event in c indicate the rupture style in model LW. Examples of each rupture style during one supercycle are shown in Fig. 3a–c, as indicated. Shown results are upscaled and events are selected according to a picking algorithm (Supplementary Methods).

  3. Rupture styles in wide downdip width reference model (LW).
    Figure 3: Rupture styles in wide downdip width reference model (LW).

    ac, Subcritical rupture (a), pulse-like rupture (b) and crack-like rupture (c) during one supercycle in model LW (Fig. 2c). Along interface profiles of initial second invariant of the deviatoric stress tensor and strength (left column), final second invariant of the deviatoric stress tensor and strength (central column) and spatiotemporal evolution of horizontal displacement velocity (right column). Shown results are upscaled (Supplementary Methods).

  4. Impact of the downdip seismogenic zone width and depth.
    Figure 4: Impact of the downdip seismogenic zone width and depth.

    a,b, Average number of events per supercycle (a) and median of the S parameter (b; see Supplementary Methods), indicating the dominance of different rupture styles. Dashed lines indicate the transition from ordinary cycles to supercycles (a) as well as from the dominance of crack-like to pulse-like and subcritical ruptures (b).


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  1. Institute of Geophysics, ETH Zurich, Sonneggstrasse 5, CH-8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Robert Herrendörfer,
    • Ylona van Dinther &
    • Taras Gerya
  2. Swissnuclear, Aarauerstrasse 55, CH-4601 Olten, Switzerland

    • Luis Angel Dalguer


All authors contributed in the design of the study. R.H. carried out, analysed and interpreted the numerical experiments, and conducted literature research. Y.v.D., T.G. and L.A.D. supervised this work. R.H. wrote the manuscript together with contributions from Y.v.D., T.G. and L.A.D. reviewed the manuscript.

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