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Randomness of megathrust earthquakes implied by rapid stress recovery after the Japan earthquake

Abstract

Constraints on the recurrence times of subduction zone earthquakes are important for seismic hazard assessment and mitigation. Models of such megathrust earthquakes often assume that subduction zones are segmented and earthquakes occur quasi-periodically owing to constant tectonic loading. Here we analyse the occurrence of small earthquakes compared to larger ones—the b-values—on a 1,000-km-long section of the subducting Pacific Plate beneath central and northern Japan since 1998. We find that the b-values vary spatially and mirror the tectonic regime. For example, high b-values, indicative of low stress, occur in locations characterized by deep magma chambers and low b-values, or high stress, occur where the subducting and overriding plates are strongly coupled. There is no significant variation in the low b-values to suggest the plate interface is segmented in a way that might limit potential ruptures. Parts of the plate interface that ruptured during the 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake were highly stressed in the years leading up to the earthquake. Although the stress was largely released during the 2011 rupture, we find that the stress levels quickly recovered to pre-quake levels within just a few years. We conclude that large earthquakes may not have a characteristic location, size or recurrence interval, and might therefore occur more randomly distributed in time.

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Figure 1: Three-dimensional study overview.
Figure 2: Temporal evolution of b-values along the subducting plate.
Figure 3: b-value time series and monthly activity rates.
Figure 4: Correlation between b-values and co-seismic slip in Tohoku.
Figure 5: Significance of temporal b-value changes.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Hardebeck, S. Jónsson and M. Wyss for feedback on the manuscript. We thank JMA for sharing the earthquake catalogue. Figures were produced with The Generic Mapping Tools http://gmt.soest.hawaii.edu. Part of this study was funded through SNF grant PMPDP2 134174. B.E. acknowledges support from the ‘Mega-Earthquake Risk Management’ project at the University of Tsukuba.

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B.E. obtained, selected and pre-processed the earthquake data sets used in this study and provided expert opinion on the Japanese seismotectonics. T.T. led the design of, implemented and conducted the data analysis, and was responsible for result visualization. S.W. and J.W. contributed to the design of the analysis. J.W. contributed to figure generation. All authors participated in the discussion and interpretation of results and the writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Thessa Tormann.

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Tormann, T., Enescu, B., Woessner, J. et al. Randomness of megathrust earthquakes implied by rapid stress recovery after the Japan earthquake. Nature Geosci 8, 152–158 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2343

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