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Remote triggering of fault-strength changes on the San Andreas fault at Parkfield

An Erratum to this article was published on 03 December 2009


Fault strength is a fundamental property of seismogenic zones, and its temporal changes can increase or decrease the likelihood of failure and the ultimate triggering of seismic events. Although changes in fault strength have been suggested to explain various phenomena, such as the remote triggering of seismicity1, there has been no means of actually monitoring this important property in situ. Here we argue that 20 years of observation (1987–2008) of the Parkfield area at the San Andreas fault have revealed a means of monitoring fault strength. We have identified two occasions where long-term changes in fault strength have been most probably induced remotely by large seismic events, namely the 2004 magnitude (M) 9.1 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake and the earlier 1992 M = 7.3 Landers earthquake. In both cases, the change possessed two manifestations: temporal variations in the properties of seismic scatterers—probably reflecting the stress-induced migration of fluids—and systematic temporal variations in the characteristics of repeating-earthquake sequences that are most consistent with changes in fault strength. In the case of the 1992 Landers earthquake, a period of reduced strength probably triggered the 1993 Parkfield aseismic transient2,3,4,5 as well as the accompanying cluster of four M > 4 earthquakes at Parkfield. The fault-strength changes produced by the distant 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake are especially important, as they suggest that the very largest earthquakes may have a global influence on the strength of the Earth’s fault systems. As such a perturbation would bring many fault zones closer to failure, it should lead to temporal clustering of global seismicity. This hypothesis seems to be supported by the unusually high number of M ≥ 8 earthquakes occurring in the few years following the 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake.

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Figure 1: Map of the Parkfield segment at the San Andreas fault.
Figure 2: Temporal changes in scatterer properties for a 22-year period.
Figure 3: Temporal variations in following the 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake.
Figure 4: Temporal changes in seismic moment for the post-Landers earthquake period.

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This work was supported by the National Science Foundation EAR-0337308, EAR-0408947, EAR-0409024, EAR-0453638, EAR-0537641, EAR-0544730 and DTM-2025-01, and by the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington. The Parkfield High-Resolution Seismic Network is operated by University of California, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory with financial support from the US Geological Survey (USGS) through National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program award 07HQAG0014. Seismic and geodetic data are archived at the Northern California Earthquake Data Center and USGS, respectively. We thank J. Murray-Moraleda for providing the slip rate data, and E. A. Roeloffs and A. T. Linde for discussions. This is Berkeley Seismological Laboratory contribution 09-14.

Author Contributions T.T., with P.G.S. and F.N, analysed data; R.M.N. identified and maintained the repeating earthquake catalogue; P.G.S. and T.T. wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Taka’aki Taira.

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Taira, T., Silver, P., Niu, F. et al. Remote triggering of fault-strength changes on the San Andreas fault at Parkfield. Nature 461, 636–639 (2009).

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