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Slip maxima at fault junctions and rupturing of barriers during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake


The disastrous 12 May 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China took the local population as well as scientists by surprise. Although the Longmen Shan fault zone—which includes the fault segments along which this earthquake nucleated—was well known, geologic and geodetic data indicate relatively low (<3 mm yr−1) deformation rates. Here we invert Global Positioning System and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar data to infer fault geometry and slip distribution associated with the earthquake. Our analysis shows that the geometry of the fault changes along its length: in the southwest, the fault plane dips moderately to the northwest but becomes nearly vertical in the northeast. Associated with this is a change in the motion along the fault from predominantly thrusting to strike-slip. Peak slip along the fault occurs at the intersections of fault segments located near the towns of Yingxiu, Beichuan and Nanba, where fatalities and damage were concentrated. We suggest that these locations represent barriers that failed in a single event, enabling the rupture to cascade through several fault segments and cause a major moment magnitude (Mw) 7.9 earthquake. Using coseismic slip distribution and geodetic and geological slip rates, we estimate that the failure of barriers and rupture along multiple segments takes place approximately once in 4,000 years.

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Figure 1: Tectonic setting of the Wenchuan earthquake.
Figure 2: InSAR and GPS data fittings.
Figure 3: Inversion results.
Figure 4: Secular block-motion model.

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We thank JAXA and ESA (ESA-NRSCC Dragon project 2577), particularly M. Kawai and R. Malosti for SAR data provision, and CEA and CBSM survey crews, particularly Q. Wang, for GPS data collection. Discussions with X. Xu, C. Lasserre, R. Briggs, X. Wen, Q. Liu, C. Ji, E. Fielding, P. Bird, Y. Kagan, D. Jackson, A. Sladen, J.-P. Avouac, A. Yin and P. Molnar have been helpful. Review comments of J. Langbein are appreciated. Administrative and technical support provided by Q. Li, J. Sun, W. Tao, F. Liang, X. Gao, Y. Wang, M. Hao, K. Wang and W. Chen are appreciated. This study has been supported by research grants from MSTC (2004CB418403, LED2008A05), NSFC (40674011, 40674022), CEA (IGCEA JB-09-04, 200708002) and NSF (EAR-0609656).

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Z.-K.S., R.B., Y.Z., P.Z., and J.S. wrote the paper. J.S. and M.W. processed InSAR and GPS data. Y.W. and Z.-K.S. carried out modelling and inversion. P.Z., W.G., H.L., and Q.W. organized GPS field surveys for data collection.

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Correspondence to Zheng-Kang Shen.

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Shen, ZK., Sun, J., Zhang, P. et al. Slip maxima at fault junctions and rupturing of barriers during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Nature Geosci 2, 718–724 (2009).

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