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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to M. M. Scuderi.

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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).

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