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Earthquake potential revealed by tidal influence on earthquake size–frequency statistics

Abstract

The possibility that tidal stress can trigger earthquakes is long debated1,2,3,4,5,6. In particular, a clear causal relationship between small earthquakes and the phase of tidal stress is elusive2,3,4,5,6,7,8. However, tectonic tremors deep within subduction zones are highly sensitive to tidal stress levels9,10,11,12,13, with tremor rate increasing at an exponential rate with rising tidal stress11,12,13. Thus, slow deformation and the possibility of earthquakes at subduction plate boundaries may be enhanced during periods of large tidal stress. Here we calculate the tidal stress history, and specifically the amplitude of tidal stress, on a fault plane in the two weeks before large earthquakes globally, based on data from the global14, Japanese15, and Californian16 earthquake catalogues. We find that very large earthquakes, including the 2004 Sumatran, 2010 Maule earthquake in Chile and the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake in Japan, tend to occur near the time of maximum tidal stress amplitude. This tendency is not obvious for small earthquakes. However, we also find that the fraction of large earthquakes increases (the b-value of the Gutenberg–Richter relation decreases) as the amplitude of tidal shear stress increases. The relationship is also reasonable, considering the well-known relationship between stress and the b-value17,18,19,20. This suggests that the probability of a tiny rock failure expanding to a gigantic rupture increases with increasing tidal stress levels. We conclude that large earthquakes are more probable during periods of high tidal stress.

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Figure 1: Tidal shear stress for the period 30 days before and after three large earthquakes.
Figure 2: Histograms of stress level ranking for different magnitude thresholds.
Figure 3: Estimated b-values and size–frequency statistics.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for helpful comments from H. Kao and J. Vidale. This work was supported by the Earthquake and Volcano Hazards Observation and Research Program, MEXT and JSPS KAKENHI (16H02219). Figures were prepared using the Generic Mapping Tools (Wessel and Smith, 1998).

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S.I. designed the plan of study, carried out tidal stress calculations and the statistical analysis, and wrote the manuscript. S.Y. and Y.T. developed a calculation system for the tidal stress and contributed to the discussion.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Satoshi Ide.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Ide, S., Yabe, S. & Tanaka, Y. Earthquake potential revealed by tidal influence on earthquake size–frequency statistics. Nature Geosci 9, 834–837 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2796

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