Abstract

The magnitude 7.8 Gorkha earthquake in April 2015 ruptured a 150-km-long section of the Himalayan décollement terminating close to Kathmandu1,2,3,4. The earthquake failed to rupture the surface Himalayan frontal thrusts and raised concern that a future Mw ≤ 7.3 earthquake could break the unruptured region to the south and west of Kathmandu. Here we use GPS records of surface motions to show that no aseismic slip occurred on the ruptured fault plane in the six months immediately following the earthquake. We find that although 70 mm of afterslip occurred locally north of the rupture, fewer than 25 mm of afterslip occurred in a narrow zone to the south. Rapid initial afterslip north of the rupture was largely complete in six months, releasing aseismic-moment equivalent to a Mw 7.1 earthquake. Historical earthquakes in 1803, 1833, 1905 and 1947 also failed to rupture the Himalayan frontal faults, and were not followed by large earthquakes to their south. This implies that significant relict heterogeneous strain prevails throughout the Main Himalayan Thrust. The considerable slip during great Himalayan earthquakes may be due in part to great earthquakes tapping reservoirs of residual strain inherited from former partial ruptures of the Main Himalayan Thrust.

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Acknowledgements

Details of support from NSF EAR 1345136, 1546636 and 1261833 and NASA and from numerous organizations and individuals that made the measurements possible are found in the Supplementary Information. We especially thank J.-P. Avouac for his important role in working with the Ministry of Mines and Geology in Nepal to install and maintain the Nepal GPS network and the NSF-operated UNAVCO facility for supporting the rapid response.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. CIRES and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0216, USA

    • David Mencin
    •  & Roger Bilham
  2. Department of Geosciences, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA

    • Rebecca Bendick
    •  & Ellen Knappe
  3. Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, Khumaltar, Lalitpur, Nepal

    • Bishal Nath Upreti
    •  & Hari Ram Shrestha
  4. Department of Geology, Tri-Chandra Campus, Tribhuvan University, Ghantaghar, Kathmandu, Nepal

    • Danda Pani Adhikari
    • , Ananta Prasad Gajurel
    • , Roshan Raj Bhattarai
    •  & Tara Nidhi Bhattarai
  5. Nepal Survey Department, PO Box 9435 Min Bhawan, Kathmandu, Nepal

    • Niraj Manandhar
  6. UNAVCO, 6350 Nautilus Drive, Boulder, Colorado 80301-5394, USA

    • John Galetzka
  7. Central Washington University, Geological Sciences Department, 400 E University Way, Ellensburg, Washington 98926-7418, USA

    • Beth Pratt-Sitaula
  8. Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Strada Costiera, 11, I-34151 Trieste, Italy

    • Abdelkrim Aoudia

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Contributions

All authors gathered the data. J.G. directed GPS instrumentation and telemetry. D.M. analysed the GPS data. R.Bendick, D.M. and R.Bilham undertook the elastic modelling and wrote the article.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Roger Bilham.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2734

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