Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Nicoya earthquake rupture anticipated by geodetic measurement of the locked plate interface


The Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica is one of the few places on Earth where the seismically active plate interface of a subduction zone is directly overlaid by land rather than ocean. At this plate interface, large megathrust earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 7 occur approximately every 50 years. Such quakes occurred in 1853, 1900 and 1950, so another large earthquake had been anticipated1,2. Land-based Global Positioning System3,4 (GPS) and seismic5,6,7 measurements revealed a region where the plate interface was locked and hence accumulated seismic strain that could be released in future earthquakes. On 5 September 2012, the long-anticipated Nicoya earthquake occurred in the heart of the previously identified locked patch. Here we report observations of coseismic deformation from GPS and geomorphic data along the Nicoya Peninsula and show that the magnitude 7.6 Nicoya earthquake ruptured the lateral and down-dip extent of the previously locked region of the plate interface. We also identify a previously locked part of the plate interface, located immediately offshore, that may not have slipped during the 2012 earthquake, where monitoring should continue. By pairing observations of the spatial extent of interseismic locking and subsequent coseismic rupture, we demonstrate the use of detailed near-field geodetic investigations during the late interseismic period for identifying future earthquake potential.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Past large earthquakes, previous microseismicity and aftershocks.
Figure 2: Observed and modelled coseismic deformation of the 2012 Nicoya earthquake.
Figure 3: Observations of earthquake-induced changes in a coastal estuary.
Figure 4: Comparison of late-interseismic coupling and coseismic displacement.


  1. 1

    Nishenko, S. P. Circum-Pacific seismic potential: 1989–1999. Pure Appl. Geophys. 135, 169–259 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Protti, M., Guëndel, F. & Malavassi, E. Evaluación del potencial sísmico de la Península de Nicoya (Editorial Fundación UNA, 2001).

  3. 3

    Norabuena, E. et al. Geodetic and seismic constraints on some seismogenic zone processes in Costa Rica. J. Geophys. Res. 109, 1–25 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Feng, L. et al. Active deformation near the Nicoya Peninsula, northwestern Costa Rica, between 1996 and 2010: Interseismic megathrust coupling. J. Geophys. Res. 117, B06407 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Newman, A. et al. Along-strike variability in the seismogenic zone below Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 1977 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Schwartz, S. Y. & DeShon, H. R. in The Seismogenic Zone of Subduction Thrust Faults (eds Dixon, T. & Moore, J. C.) 576–599 (Columbia Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Ghosh, A., Newman, A. V., Thomas, A. M. & Farmer, G. T. Interface locking along the subduction megathrust from b-value mapping near Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L01301 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    DeMets, C., Gordon, R. G. & Argus, D. F. Geologically current plate motions. Geophys. J. Int. 181, 1–80 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Outerbridge, K. C. et al. A tremor and slip event on the Cocos-Caribbean subduction zone as measured by a global positioning system (GPS) and seismic network on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. J. Geophys. Res. 115, B10408 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Jiang, Y. et al. Slow slip events in Costa Rica detected by continuous GPS observations, 2002–2011. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 13, Q04006 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Brown, J. R. et al. Deep low frequency earthquakes in tremor localize to the plate interface in multiple subduction zones. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L19306 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Walter, J. I., Schwartz, S. Y., Protti, J. M. & González, V. Persistent tremor within the northern Costa Rica seismogenic zone. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L01307 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Walter, J. I., Schwartz, S. Y., Protti, J. M. & Gonzalez, V. The synchronous occurrence of shallow tremor and very low frequency earthquakes offshore the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 1–6 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Lundgren, P. et al. Seismic cycle and plate margin deformation in Costa Rica: GPS observations from 1994 to 1997. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 28915–28926 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Iinuma, T. et al. Inter-plate coupling in the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, as deduced from a trans-peninsula GPS experiment. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 223, 203–212 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Laboratorio de Ingenierı´a Sı´smica. (2012).

  17. 17

    Chacón-Barrantes, S. E. & Protti, M. Modelling a tsunami from the Nicoya, Costa Rica, seismic gap and its potential impact in Puntarenas. J. South Am. Earth Sci. 31, 372–382 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Chaves, E. J. et al. Determination of earthquake source parameters using local and regional data: Seismic moment and rupture directivity of the M w = 7.6 Nicoya Earthquake, Costa Rica. AGU Meeting Am. [abstract] (2013).

  19. 19

    Ekström, G., Dziewonski, A. M., Maternovskaya, N. N. & Nettles, M. Global seismicity of 2003: Centroid-moment-tensor solutions for 1087 earthquakes. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 148, 327–351 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Simons, M. et al. The 2011 Magnitude 9.0 Tohoku–Oki Earthquake: Mosaicking the megathrust from seconds to centuries. Science 332, 1421–1425 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Barckhausen, U., Ranero, C., von Huene, R., Cande, S. & Roeser, H. Revised tectonic boundaries in the Cocos Plate off Costa Rica: Implications for the segmentation of the convergent margin and for plate tectonic models. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 19207–19220 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Yue, H. et al. The 5 September 2012 Nicoya, Costa Rica Mw 7.6 earthquake rupture process from joint inversion of high-rate GPS, strong-motion, and teleseismic P wave data and its relationship to adjacent plate boundary interface properties. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 5453–5466 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Spinelli, G. A., Saffer, D. M. & Underwood, M. B. Hydrogeologic responses to three-dimensional temperature variability, Costa Rica subduction margin. J. Geophys. Res. 111, B04403 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    DeShon, H. R. et al. Seismogenic zone structure beneath the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, from three-dimensional local earthquake P- and S-wave tomography. Geophys. J. Int. 164, 109–124 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Marshall, J. S. & Anderson, R. S. Quaternary uplift and seismic cycle deformation, Peninsula de Nicoya, Costa Rica. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 107, 463–473 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Newman, A. V., Hayes, G., Wei, Y. & Convers, J. A. The 25 October 2010 Mentawai Tsunami Earthquake, from real-time discriminants, finite-fault rupture, and tsunami excitation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L05302 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Kanamori, H. & Kikuchi, M. The 1992 Nicaragua earthquake: A slow tsunami earthquake associated with subducted sediments. Nature 361, 714–716 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Newman, A. V. Hidden depths. Nature 474, 441–443 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Dixon, T. H. et al. Detailed data available for recent Costa Rica earthquake. Eos. Trans. AGU 94, 17–18 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Pacheco, J., Sykes, L. & Scholz, C. Nature of seismic coupling along simple plate boundaries of the subduction type. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 14133–14159 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the field team including S. Polster, J. Richardson, D. Voytenko, G. Barcheck, S. Morrish, E. Menjivar and E. Hernandez. We thank the now finished NSF MARGINS programme for providing regional focus for studying seismogenic zone processes in Costa Rica. Support to S.Y.S. and T.H.D. was provided by NSF no. 0847382 and 1140261, support to J.S.M. was provided by NSF no. 0948312 and support to A.V.N. was provided by NSF no. 1262267 and 0847382.

Author information




M.P. and V.G. provided original insight of Nicoya earthquake vulnerability and long-term dedication and support to field research in Nicoya, including the post-earthquake campaign. A.V.N. obtained NSF funds, managed the post-earthquake field campaign and coordinated efforts on this manuscript. S.Y.S. and T.H.D. established and maintain much of the Nicoya seismic network and the continuous GPS network, respectively. J.S.M. carried out pre- and post-earthquake field geomorphic studies and provided final geomorphic results. A.V.N., S.Y.S., T.H.D., M.P. and J.S.M. provided individuals for the field campaign. J.I.W. carried out early aftershock analysis and provided Fig. 1. S.E.O. provided initial rapid GPS solutions for rapid field assessment. R.M. provided final GPS solutions. L.F. provided rapid and final inversion models for coseismic slip and Fig. 4, Supplementary Figs 2 and 3. A.V.N. wrote the paper with all authors adding contributions to the final version and Supplementary Text.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew V. Newman.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 2825 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Protti, M., González, V., Newman, A. et al. Nicoya earthquake rupture anticipated by geodetic measurement of the locked plate interface. Nature Geosci 7, 117–121 (2014).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing