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Primary surface ruptures of the great Himalayan earthquakes in 1934 and 1255

An Erratum to this article was published on 31 January 2013

This article has been updated


It is unclear where plate boundary thrusts generate giant rather than great earthquakes. Along the Himalayas, the source sizes and recurrence times of large seismic events are particularly uncertain, since no surface signatures were found for those that shook the range in the twentieth century. Here we challenge the consensus that these events remained blind and did not rupture the surface. We use geomorphological mapping of fluvial deposits, palaeo-seismological logging of river-cut cliffs and trench walls, and modelling of calibrated 14C ages, to show that the Mw 8.2 Bihar–Nepal earthquake on 15 January 1934 did break the surface: traces of the rupture are clear along at least 150 km of the Main Frontal Thrust fault in Nepal, between 85° 50′ and 87° 20′ E. Furthermore, we date collapse wedges in the Sir Valley and find that the 7 June AD 1255 earthquake, an event that devastated Kathmandu and mortally wounded the Nepalese King Abhaya Malla, also ruptured the surface along this stretch of the mega-thrust. Thus, in the past 1,000 years, two great earthquakes, 679 years apart, rather than one giant eleventh-century AD event, contributed to the frontal uplift of young river terraces in eastern Nepal. The rare surface expression of these earthquakes implies that surface ruptures of other reputedly blind great Himalayan events might exist.

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Figure 1: Great earthquakes along Main Himalayan Thrust (MHT–MFT).
Figure 2: Patu Thrust at Sir River site.
Figure 3: Photo-mosaics and palaeo-seismological logs of Sir river-cut.
Figure 4: Simplified log of main trench on the east bank of the Sir River.
Figure 5: 1934 surface break.

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  • 15 January 2013

    In the version of this Article originally published, in the last paragraph under the heading 'Rupture length and return time of M>8 events in Nepal' the third sentence should have read: "Damage caused by focused SmS seismic phase arrivals21 and widespread liquefaction diverted attention to the Ganges Plain". This has been corrected in the PDF and HTML versions of the Article.


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The research was principally funded by EOS (NTU, Singapore), with contributions from CEA/DASE and Project PAKSIS (ANR Cattel) in France. We thank M. Goh (EOS) for technical assistance with the Lidar data acquisition and processing, N. Shrestha (Kathmandu) for total station topographic surveying, and G. Cook (SUERC Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, University of Glasgow, UK) for the charcoal samples analyses. We are grateful to the young men of Cheru for refreshing and cleaning the river-cut cliff and trench walls. We also thank the Department of Mines and Geology in Kathmandu, Nepal, for constant logistical support, and F. Perrier and B. N. Upreti for excellent guidance during a first exploratory field trip. We are particularly indebted to F. Perrier for having inspired this study from the start. S. Wesnousky and T. Rockwell provided thoughtful, constructive comments that helped improve the original manuscript. This is EOS/NTU contribution number 40.

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The data and results presented in this paper are part of Som Sapkota’s PhD thesis (Institut de Physique du Globe, Paris, France). P.T. led the project. All authors contributed to the fieldwork and sampling. S.N.S., Y.K., L.B. and P.T. contributed equally to the logging and interpretation of the river-cut face and trench wall. S.N.S., Y.K. and P.T. drafted the original logs shown on Figs 3 and 4, and P.T., L.B. and S.N.S., the original maps of Figs 1 and 2. L.B. directed the dating effort, performed the Oxcal modelling, and drafted the final versions of the figures. P.T., L.B. and S.N.S. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to L. Bollinger.

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Sapkota, S., Bollinger, L., Klinger, Y. et al. Primary surface ruptures of the great Himalayan earthquakes in 1934 and 1255. Nature Geosci 6, 71–76 (2013).

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