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Predicting the endpoints of earthquake ruptures


The active fault traces on which earthquakes occur are generally not continuous1, and are commonly composed of segments that are separated by discontinuities that appear as steps in map-view. Stress concentrations resulting from slip at such discontinuities may slow or stop rupture propagation and hence play a controlling role in limiting the length of earthquake rupture2. Here I examine the mapped surface rupture traces of 22 historical strike-slip earthquakes with rupture lengths ranging between 10 and 420 km. I show that about two-thirds of the endpoints of strike-slip earthquake ruptures are associated with fault steps or the termini of active fault traces, and that there exists a limiting dimension of fault step (3–4 km) above which earthquake ruptures do not propagate and below which rupture propagation ceases only about 40 per cent of the time. The results are of practical importance to seismic hazard analysis where effort is spent attempting to place limits on the probable length of future earthquakes on mapped active faults. Physical insight to the dynamics of the earthquake rupture process is further gained with the observation that the limiting dimension appears to be largely independent of the earthquake rupture length. It follows that the magnitude of stress changes and the volume affected by those stress changes at the driving edge of laterally propagating ruptures are largely similar and invariable during the rupture process regardless of the distance an event has propagated or will propagate.

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Figure 1: Map of 1968 Borrego Mountain earthquake surface trace.
Figure 2: Synopsis of observations bearing on relationship of geometrical discontinuities along fault strike to the endpoints of historical earthquake ruptures.
Figure 3: Geometrical discontinuities as a function of size.


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I thank J. Dolan, R. Dmowska, R. Harris, B. Oglesby and B. Shaw for comments or reviews when developing the manuscript. Research was supported in part by a USGS NHERP contract and an NSF/SCEC award.

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Correspondence to Steven G. Wesnousky.

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Wesnousky, S. Predicting the endpoints of earthquake ruptures. Nature 444, 358–360 (2006).

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