Most large earthquakes occur along an oceanic trench, where an oceanic plate subducts beneath a continental plate. Massive earthquakes with a moment magnitude, Mw, of nine have been known to occur in only a few areas, including Chile, Alaska, Kamchatka and Sumatra. No historical records exist of a Mw = 9 earthquake along the Japan trench, where the Pacific plate subducts beneath the Okhotsk plate, with the possible exception of the ad 869 Jogan earthquake1, the magnitude of which has not been well constrained. However, the strain accumulation rate estimated there from recent geodetic observations is much higher than the average strain rate released in previous interplate earthquakes2,3,4,5,6. This finding raises the question of how such areas release the accumulated strain. A megathrust earthquake with Mw = 9.0 (hereafter referred to as the Tohoku-Oki earthquake) occurred on 11 March 2011, rupturing the plate boundary off the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan. Here we report the distributions of the coseismic slip and postseismic slip as determined from ground displacement detected using a network based on the Global Positioning System. The coseismic slip area extends approximately 400 km along the Japan trench, matching the area of the pre-seismic locked zone4. The afterslip has begun to overlap the coseismic slip area and extends into the surrounding region. In particular, the afterslip area reached a depth of approximately 100 km, with Mw = 8.3, on 25 March 2011. Because the Tohoku-Oki earthquake released the strain accumulated for several hundred years, the paradox of the strain budget imbalance may be partly resolved. This earthquake reminds us of the potential for Mw ≈ 9 earthquakes to occur along other trench systems, even if no past evidence of such events exists. Therefore, it is imperative that strain accumulation be monitored using a space geodetic technique to assess earthquake potential.
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We are grateful to the Japan Meteorological Agency for providing us with the hypocentre data. We also thank M. Murakami, H. Munekane and Y. Hatanaka for their comments.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Ozawa, S., Nishimura, T., Suito, H. et al. Coseismic and postseismic slip of the 2011 magnitude-9 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Nature 475, 373–376 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10227
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