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.

Precursory changes in seismic velocity for the spectrum of earthquake failure modes


Temporal changes in seismic velocity during the earthquake cycle have the potential to illuminate physical processes associated with fault weakening and connections between the range of fault slip behaviours including slow earthquakes, tremor and low-frequency earthquakes1. Laboratory and theoretical studies predict changes in seismic velocity before earthquake failure2; however, tectonic faults fail in a spectrum of modes and little is known about precursors for those modes3. Here we show that precursory changes of wave speed occur in laboratory faults for the complete spectrum of failure modes observed for tectonic faults. We systematically altered the stiffness of the loading system to reproduce the transition from slow to fast stick–slip and monitored ultrasonic wave speed during frictional sliding. We find systematic variations of elastic properties during the seismic cycle for both slow and fast earthquakes indicating similar physical mechanisms during rupture nucleation. Our data show that accelerated fault creep causes reduction of seismic velocity and elastic moduli during the preparatory phase preceding failure, which suggests that real-time monitoring of active faults may be a means to detect earthquake precursors.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: The spectrum of fault slip behaviour for laboratory faults.
Figure 2: Mechanical and P-wave velocity measurements during slow-slip (top) and fast-slip cycles (bottom).
Figure 3: Comparison between slow-slip and fast stick–slip cycles.
Figure 4: Comparison between laboratory and natural variation in seismic velocity.


  1. Scholz, C. H., Sykes, L. R. & Aggarwal, Y. P. Earthquake prediction: a physical basis. Science 181, 803–810 (1973).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Yoshioka, N. & Iwasa, K. A laboratory experiment to monitor the contact state of a fault by transmission waves. Tectonophysics 413, 221–238 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Kaproth, B. M. & Marone, C. Slow earthquakes, preseismic velocity changes, and the origin of slow frictional stick-slip. Science 341, 1229–1232 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Niu, F., Silver, P. G., Daley, T. M., Cheng, X. & Majer, E. L. Preseismic velocity changes observed from active source monitoring at the Parkfield SAFOD drill site. Nature 454, 204–208 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Chen, J. H., Froment, B., Liu, Q. Y. & Campillo, M. Distribution of seismic wave speed changes associated with the 12 May 2008 Mw 7.9 Wenchuan earthquake. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, 2008–2011 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Rivet, D. et al. Seismic evidence of nonlinear crustal deformation during a large slow slip event in Mexico. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, 3–7 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Pradhan, S., Hansen, A. & Hemmer, P. C. Crossover behavior in burst avalanches: Signature of imminent failure. Phys. Rev. Lett. 95, 125501–125504 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Ohnaka, M. & Shen, L. Scaling of the shear rupture process from nucleation to dynamic propagation: implications of geometric irregularity of the rupturing surfaces. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 817–844 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Latour, S., Schubnel, A., Nielsen, S., Madariaga, R. & Vinciguerra, S. Characterization of nucleation during laboratory earthquakes. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 5064–5069 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Schubnel, A., Benson, P. M., Thompson, B. D., Hazzard, J. F. & Young, R. P. Quantifying damage, saturation and anisotropy in cracked rocks by inverting elastic wave velocities. Pure Appl. Geophys. 163, 947–973 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Nagata, K., Nakatani, M. & Yoshida, S. Monitoring frictional strength with acoustic wave transmission. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L06310 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Ide, S., Beroza, G. C., Shelly, D. R. & Uchide, T. A. Scaling law for slow earthquakes. Nature 447, 76–79 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Peng, Z. & Gomberg, J. An integrated perspective of the continuum between earthquakes and slow-slip phenomena. Nature Geosci. 3, 599–607 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Obara, K. Nonvolcanic deep tremor associated with subduction in southwest Japan. Science 296, 1679–1681 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Shelly, D. R., Beroza, G. C., Ide, S. & Nakamula, S. Low-frequency earthquakes in Shikoku, Japan, and their relationship to episodic tremor and slip. Nature 442, 188–191 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Kato, A. et al. Propagation of slow slip leading up to the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake. Science 335, 705–708 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Rogers, G. & Dragert, H. Episodic tremor and slip on the Cascadia subduction zone: the chatter of silent slip. Science 300, 1942–1943 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Bouchon, M., Durand, V., Marsan, D., Karabulut, H. & Schmittbuhl, J. The long precursory phase of most large interplate earthquakes. Nature Geosci. 6, 299–302 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Wallace, L. M. et al. Slow slip near the trench at the Hikurangi subduction zone, New Zealand. Science 352, 701–704 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Veedu, D. M. & Barbot, S. The Parkfield tremors reveal slow and fast ruptures on the same asperity. Nature 532, 361–365 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Gu, J., Rice, J., Ruina, A. & Tse, S. Slip motion and stability of a single degree of freedom elastic system with rate and state dependent friction. J. Mech. Phys. Solids 32, 167–196 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Scholz, C., Molnar, P. & Johnson, T. Detailed studies of frictional sliding of granite and implications for the earthquake mechanism. J. Geophys. Res. 77, 6392–6406 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Baumberger, T., Heslot, F. & Perrin, B. Crossover from creep to inertial motion in friction dynamics. Nature 367, 544–546 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Leeman, J. R., Saffer, D. M., Scuderi, M. M. & Marone, C. Laboratory observations of slow earthquakes and the spectrum of tectonic fault slip modes. Nature Commun. 7, 11104 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Brace, W. & Byerlee, J. Stick-slip as a mechanism for earthquakes. Science 153, 990–992 (1966).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Li, Y., Vidale, J. E., Aki, K., Xu, F. & Burdette, T. Evidence of shallow fault zone strengthening after the 1992 M7.5 Landers, California, earthquake. Science 279, 217–219 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Brenguier, F. et al. Postseismic relaxation along the San Andreas fault at Parkfield from continuous seismological observations. Science 321, 1478–1481 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Liu, Y. & Rice, J. R. Spontaneous and triggered aseismic deformation transients in a subduction fault model. J. Geophys. Res. 112, B09404 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Segall, P., Rubin, A. M., Bradley, A. M. & Rice, J. R. Dilatant strengthening as a mechanism for slow slip events. J. Geophys. Res. 115, B12305 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Rubin, A. M. Designer friction laws for bimodal slow slip propagation speeds. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 12, B11414 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Collettini, C. et al. A novel and versatile apparatus for brittle rock deformation. Int. J. Rock Mech. Min. Sci. 66, 114–123 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Reinen, L. & Weeks, J. Determination of rock friction constitutive parameters using an iterative least squares inversion method. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 15937–15950 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Blanpied, M. L., Marone, C. J., Lockner, D. A., Byerlee, J. D. & King, D. P. Quantitative measure of the variation in fault rheology due to fluid-rock interaction. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 9691–9712 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Marone, C. Laboratory-derived friction laws and their application to seismic faulting. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 26, 643–696 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank M. Cocco, P. Johnson, J. Leeman and D. Saffer for discussion regarding this work. We also thank P. Scarlato for support at the INGV HP-HT laboratory. This research was supported by ERC grant no. 259256 GLASS to C.C., visiting professor 2015 SAPIENZA grant and grants NSF-EAR1520760 and DE-EE0006762 to C.M., and European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie no. 656676 FEAT to M.M.S.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



All of the authors contributed to the experimental design, data analysis and writing. M.M.S., C.M. and C.C. conducted experiments and data analysis, E.T. and M.M.S. developed the model for acoustic wave propagation and performed waveforms analysis, and G.D.S. and M.M.S. developed the waveforms recording system and synchronization.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. M. Scuderi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 5213 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Scuderi, M., Marone, C., Tinti, E. et al. Precursory changes in seismic velocity for the spectrum of earthquake failure modes. Nature Geosci 9, 695–700 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


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