Fault healing promotes high-frequency earthquakes in laboratory experiments and on natural faults

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Faults strengthen or heal with time in stationary contact1,2, and this healing may be an essential ingredient for the generation of earthquakes1,2,3. In the laboratory, healing is thought to be the result of thermally activated mechanisms that weld together micrometre-sized asperity contacts on the fault surface, but the relationship between laboratory measures of fault healing and the seismically observable properties of earthquakes is at present not well defined. Here we report on laboratory experiments and seismological observations that show how the spectral properties of earthquakes vary as a function of fault healing time. In the laboratory, we find that increased healing causes a disproportionately large amount of high-frequency seismic radiation to be produced during fault rupture. We observe a similar connection between earthquake spectra and recurrence time for repeating earthquake sequences on natural faults. Healing rates depend on pressure, temperature4 and mineralogy1, so the connection between seismicity and healing may help to explain recent observations of large megathrust earthquakes which indicate that energetic, high-frequency seismic radiation originates from locations that are distinct from the geodetically inferred locations of large-amplitude fault slip5,6,7.

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Figure 1: Experimental data from a pair of healing tests.
Figure 2: Sequence of successive LabEQs.
Figure 3: LabEQ spectral changes with recurrence time.
Figure 4: Spectral changes of RESs near Parkfield.


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This paper was improved by suggestions from R. Bürgmann and constructive reviews by T. Tullis, C. Marone, W. Ellsworth and N. Beeler. High-Resolution Seismic Network data was provided by the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and NCEDC. Research was supported by the US NSF GRF and NSF grants CMMI-1131582, EAR-0738342 and EAR-0910322. This is BSL contribution #11-12.

Author information

G.C.M. and S.D.G. developed the laboratory experiments. R.M.N. developed and maintained repeating-earthquake catalogues. A.M.T. and G.C.M. performed analysis of the RESs at Parkfield. G.C.M. performed analysis of LabEQs and wrote the manuscript, with contributions from all authors.

Correspondence to Gregory C. McLaskey.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figures

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-6. (PDF 1519 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

This table contains the static strength and healing parameters. (XLS 29 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

This table contains the RES information. (XLS 15 kb)

Supplementary Table 3

This table contains the RES event information. (XLS 17 kb)

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McLaskey, G., Thomas, A., Glaser, S. et al. Fault healing promotes high-frequency earthquakes in laboratory experiments and on natural faults. Nature 491, 101–104 (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11512

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