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Great Himalayan earthquakes and the Tibetan plateau


It has been assumed that Himalayan earthquakes are driven by the release of compressional strain accumulating close to the Greater Himalaya. However, elastic models of the Indo–Asian collision using recently imaged subsurface interface geometries suggest that a substantial fraction of the southernmost 500 kilometres of the Tibetan plateau participates in driving great ruptures. We show here that this Tibetan reservoir of elastic strain energy is drained in proportion to Himalayan rupture length, and that the consequent growth of slip and magnitude with rupture area, when compared to data from recent earthquakes, can be used to infer a 500-year renewal time for these events. The elastic models also illuminate two puzzling features of plate boundary seismicity: how great earthquakes can re-rupture regions that have already ruptured in recent smaller earthquakes and how mega-earthquakes with greater than 20 metres slip may occur at millennia-long intervals, driven by residual strain following many centuries of smaller earthquakes.

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Figure 1: The southern Tibetan plateau and Himalaya.
Figure 2: Observed and synthetic present-day velocity fields for the southern Tibetan plateau.
Figure 3: Boundary element meshes used to derive synthetic slip.
Figure 4: Synthetic scaling laws for Himalayan earthquakes.
Figure 5: Unrestrained strain changes in the southern Tibetan plateau generated by synthetic earthquakes with 100-km-long (8 <  M w  < 8.2) and 600-km-long (8.4 <  M w  < 8.6) ruptures.


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Discussions with P. Bodin, J. Gomberg, G. King, P. Molnar and W. Szeliga, and written comments from S. Wesnousky, J.-P. Avouac and J. Freymueller, have improved the manuscript. This paper is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation. Author Contributions The 2003/4 GPS observations in Nepal were conducted by N.F. and R.B., and the planar dislocation models presented here formed the focus of N.F.’s MSc thesis at the University of Colorado.

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Correspondence to Roger Bilham.

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Raw GPS data are available from UNAVCO ( Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures, Supplementary Data and Supplementary Results. This file also includes a brief description of files used as input to the boundary element program 3D-def coded by Ellis and Gomberg. Sample files are attached ready to be input into the code, which is provided as a .tar file for operation on an Apple unix terminal. (PDF 780 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

The input file 300map is for 300-km-long unrestrained rupture with a total of 29 planes each divided into 50 segments along strike. The first two planes are a rupture fronting the Himalaya dvided into five segments along-strike and five elements down-dip, the first being a steep ramp and the second a gently dipping decollement. It outputs a map view of the surface strain (suffix .m300) and a segment displacement listing in a north-south line through the center of the rupture. Columns 2 and 3 after the line that starts "for each plane" indicate the start points (distance and depth) of each segment, and columns 5 and 9 indicate the length and dip respectively. The along-strike length of the interseismic driving condition is 3600 km and in this model each segment width is 56.25 km. All elements are freely-slipping (code 12) except the most northerly plane and last listed plane (segment 30 is code 10) which drives the system at 25 mm/year, or in the case of coseismic rupture with an imposed displacement of 25 m. The first two planes specified are the Himalayan rupture, the first plane representing a 45° north-dipping 5.7-km-long ramp-thrust that cuts the surface . If these planes are removed and the number of planes reduced from 17 to 15 in line 2, the file can be used to calculate pre-seismic displacements or interseismic velocities. Strain and displacement changes accompanying rupture can then be obtained by subtracting the two output matrices. (TXT 88 kb)

Supplementary Data 2

This is an input file to 3ddef (see details below) that produces a strain cross section with the suffix .i400. Length east west is 1700 km, width N/S is 500 km, and it has fewer segments to speed computation. Sixty four along-strike segments are placed beneath the southern plateau, reducing to thirty-two 72 km north of the locking line. As before the rupture consists of two planes each with 25 segments. (TXT 46 kb)

Supplementary Data 3

This is a tar file that when unpacked produces a folder with 14 files including the executeable 3ddef program compiled in Fortran 91which will run in the terminal mode on Apple computers. See the readme.first for a message from Ellis and Gomberg. The README file from Walter Szeliga lists the changes made to prevent matrix arrays from overflowing. Place the input files section400 or 300map in the folder 3ddef once it has been de-compressed. To run the program from "Terminal", change the directory to 3ddef [cd desktop/3ddef] then type ./3d and enter the appropriately named input file when prompted. The program will run in the background, but will be faster if no other tasks are running. (TAR 240 kb)

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Feldl, N., Bilham, R. Great Himalayan earthquakes and the Tibetan plateau. Nature 444, 165–170 (2006).

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