Nonlinear dynamics, granular media and dynamic earthquake triggering


The 1992 magnitude 7.3 Landers earthquake triggered an exceptional number of additional earthquakes within California and as far north as Yellowstone and Montana1,2,3. Since this observation, other large earthquakes have been shown to induce dynamic triggering at remote distances—for example, after the 1999 magnitude 7.1 Hector Mine1 and the 2002 magnitude 7.9 Denali4 earthquakes—and in the near-field as aftershocks5. The physical origin of dynamic triggering, however, remains one of the least understood aspects of earthquake nucleation1,2,3,4,5. The dynamic strain amplitudes from a large earthquake are exceedingly small once the waves have propagated more than several fault radii. For example, a strain wave amplitude of 10-6 and wavelength 1 m corresponds to a displacement amplitude of about 10-7 m. Here we show that the dynamic, elastic-nonlinear behaviour of fault gouge perturbed by a seismic wave may trigger earthquakes, even with such small strains. We base our hypothesis on recent laboratory dynamic experiments conducted in granular media, a fault gouge surrogate6,7. From these we infer that, if the fault is weak8,9,10, seismic waves cause the fault core modulus to decrease abruptly and weaken further. If the fault is already near failure, this process could therefore induce fault slip.

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Figure 1: Diagram of the set-up for conducting resonance and pulse-mode experiments in the glass bead pack under applied pressure P.
Figure 2: Material softening due to nonlinear dynamics under resonance conditions.
Figure 3: Relative decrease in modulus with input amplitude in the travelling-wave experiment for the glass-bead pack under a effective pressure of 0.11 MPa.
Figure 4: Failure model: how wave nonlinear dynamics forces a fault system that is in a critical, jammed state to failure by softening and weakening the gouge.


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We thank J. Gomberg, C. Marrone, P. Bodin, J. Vidale, A. Freed, R. Guyer, S. Hough, C. Scholz, P. Mills, C. Lewis, S. Meadows and J. Laurent. Funding was provided by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Science; CNRS France and the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Los Alamos. P.J. also acknowledges a grant from CNRS.

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Johnson, P., Jia, X. Nonlinear dynamics, granular media and dynamic earthquake triggering. Nature 437, 871–874 (2005).

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