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.

Past seismic slip-to-the-trench recorded in Central America megathrust


The 2011 Tōhoku-Oki earthquake revealed that co-seismic displacement along the plate boundary megathrust can propagate to the trench. Co-seismic slip to the trench amplifies hazards at subduction zones, so its historical occurrence should also be investigated globally. Here we combine structural and experimental analyses of core samples taken offshore from southeastern Costa Rica as part of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition 344, with three-dimensional seismic reflection images of the subduction zone. We document a geologic record of past co-seismic slip to the trench. The core passed through a less than 1.9-million-year-old megathrust frontal ramp that superimposes older Miocene biogenic oozes onto late Miocene–Pleistocene silty clays. This, together with our stratigraphic analyses and geophysical images, constrains the position of the basal decollement to lie within the biogenic oozes. Our friction experiments show that, when wet, silty clays and biogenic oozes are both slip-weakening at sub-seismic and seismic slip velocities. Oozes are stronger than silty clays at slip velocities of less than or equal to 0.01 m s–1, and wet oozes become as weak as silty clays only at a slip velocity of 1 m s–1. We therefore suggest that the geological structures found offshore from Costa Rica were deformed during seismic slip-to-the-trench events. During slower aseismic creep, deformation would have preferentially localized within the silty clays.

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

Fig. 1: Distribution and thickness of biogenic oozes (mostly carbonaceous) on the Cocos and Nazca plates as calculated by DSDP–ODP–IODP drilling results.
Fig. 2: Location of ODP Leg 170 and IODP Exp. 334 and 344 (CRISP) offshore Central America.
Fig. 3: Summary of experimental results.


  1. Ito, Y. et al. Frontal wedge deformation near the source region of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L00G05 (2011).

  2. Fujiwara, T. et al. The 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake: displacement reaching the trench axis. Science 334, 1240–1240 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Satake, K., Fujii, Y., Harada, T. & Namegaya, Y. Time and space distribution of coseismic slip of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake as inferred from tsunami waveform data. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 103, 1473–1492 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Wang, K. L. & Hu, Y. Accretionary prisms in subduction earthquake cycles: the theory of dynamic Coulomb wedge. J. Geophys. Res. 111, B06410 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Chester, F. M. et al. Structure and composition of the plate-boundary slip zone for the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Science 342, 1208–1211 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Ikari, M. J., Kameda, J., Saffer, D. M. & Kopf, A. J. Strength characteristics of Japan Trench borehole samples in the high-slip region of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 412, 35–41 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Faulkner, D. R., Mitchell, T. M., Behnsen, J., Hirose, T. & Shimamoto, T. Stuck in the mud? Earthquake nucleation and propagation through accretionary forearcs. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L18303 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Ujiie, K. et al. Low coseismic shear stress on the Tohoku-Oki megathrust determined from laboratory experiments. Science 342, 1211–1214 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Moore, J. C., Plank, T. A., Chester, F. M., Polissar, P. J. & Savage, H. M. Sediment provenance and controls on slip propagation: Lessons learned from the 2011 Tohoku and other great earthquakes of the subducting northwest Pacific plate. Geosphere 11, 533–541 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Horn, D. R., Horn, B. M. & Delach, M. N. Sedimentary provinces of the North Pacific. Geol. Soc. Am. Mem. 126, 1–22 (1970).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Ikari, M. J., Niemeijer, A. R., Spiers, C. J., Kopf, A. J. & Saffer, D. M. Experimental evidence linking slip instability with seafloor lithology and topography at the Costa Rica convergent margin. Geology 41, 891–894 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kurzawski, R. M., Stipp, M., Niemeijer, A. R., Spiers, C. J. & Behrmann, J. H. Earthquake nucleation in weak subducted carbonates. Nat. Geosci. 9, 717–722 (2016).

  13. Namiki, Y., Tsutsumi, A., Ujiie, K. & Kameda, J. Frictional properties of sediments entering the Costa Rica subduction zone offshore the Osa Peninsula: implication for fault slip in shallow subduction zones. Earth, Planets and Space (2014).

  14. Arroyo, I. G., Grevemeyer, I., Ranero, C. R. & von Huene, R. Interplate seismicity at the CRISP drilling site: The 2002 Mw 6.4 Osa Earthquake at the southeastern end of the Middle America Trench. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 3035–3050 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Bangs, N. L., McIntosh, K. D., Silver, E. A., Kluesner, J. W. & Ranero, C. R. Fluid accumulation along the Costa Rica subduction thrust and development of the seismogenic zone. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 120, 67–86 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Charpentier, D. et al. Mineralogy and fluid content of sediments entering the Costa Rica subduction zone—results from Site U1414, IODP Expedition 344. In AGU Fall 2013 Meeting abstr. T34C-04 (American Geophysical Union, San Francisco, 2013).

  17. Kameda, J. et al. Pelagic smectite as an important factor in tsunamigenic slip along the Japan Trench. Geology 43, 155–158 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Harris, R. N. et al. In Proc. IODP Vol. 344 (IODP, Texas, 2013);

  19. Gorman, P. J., Kerrick, D. M. & Connolly, J. A. D. Modeling open system metamorphic decarbonation of subducting slabs. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, GC001125 (2006).

  20. Kerrick, D. M. & Connolly, J. A. D. Metamorphic devolatilization of subducted marine sediments and the transport of volatiles into the Earth’s mantle. Nature 411, 293–296 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Di Toro, G. et al. From field geology to earthquake simulation: a new state-of-the-art tool to investigate rock friction during the seismic cycle (SHIVA). Rendiconti Lincei 21, 95–114 (2010).

  22. Vannucchi, P. et al. In Proc. IODP Vol. 334 (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International, Inc., Tokyo, 2012);

  23. Smith, S. A. F. et al. Coseismic recrystallization during shallow earthquake slip. Geology 41, 63–66 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Uchide, T. High-speed rupture in the first 20 s of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Japan. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 2993–2997 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Piatanesi, A., Tinti, S. & Gavagni, I. The slip distribution of the 1992 Nicaragua earthquake from tsunami run-up data. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 37–40 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Ihmle, P. F., Gomez, J.-M., Heinrich, P. & Guibourg, S. The 1996 Peru tsunamigenic earthquake: broadband source process. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 2691–2694 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Hirono, T. et al. Near-trench slip potential of megaquakes evaluated from fault properties and conditions. Sci. Rep. 6, 28184 (2016).

  28. Andrews, D. J. Rupture velocity of plane strain shear cracks. J. Geophys. Res. 81, 5679–5687 (1976).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kanamori, H. & Rivera, L. in Earthquakes: Radiated Energy and the Physics of Faulting Vol. 170 (eds Abercrombie, R., McGarr, A., DiToro, G. & Kanamori, H.) 3–13 (Geophysical Monograph Series, American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 2006).

  30. LaFemina, P. et al. Fore-arc motion and Cocos Ridge collision in Central America. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 10, Q05S14 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Vannucchi, P. et al. Rapid pulses of uplift, subsidence, and subduction erosion offshore Central America: implications for building the rock record of convergent margins. Geology 41, 995–998 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Brown, L., Wang, K. & Sun, T. Static stress drop in the Mw 9 Tohoku-oki earthquake: heterogeneous distribution and low average value. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 10.595–10.600 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Satake, K. Mechanism of the 1992 Nicaragua tsunami earthquake. Geophys. Res. Lett. 21, 2519–2522 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This research used samples and data provided by the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) ( The JOIDES Resolution crew and IODP technical team are thanked for their contributions during Exp. 334 and 344. P.V. acknowledges support during and following the expeditions from IODP-Italia, J-DESC and UK-IODP (Rapid Response Grant). E.S., S.A., S.N. and G.D.T. acknowledge the ERC CoG project 614705 ‘NOFEAR’. P.V. greatly benefited from discussions with J. Phipps Morgan. M. Stipp is thanked for constructive comments that significantly improved the paper. The data that support the findings of this study are available at

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



P.V. described the cores in ODP Leg 170 and Leg 205, and IODP Exp. 334 and Exp. 344, and sampled the sediments used for the experiments described in this paper, contributed to their interpretation and wrote the text. E.S. conducted the experiments and with the first author contributed to their interpretation, wrote the Supplementary Information and prepared the files for the data repository. S.A. conducted the experiments and contributed to their interpretation. K.U. and A.T. described the core in IODP Exp. 334 and performed an early set of experiments. G.D.T. and S.N. contributed to the interpretation of the experiments.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paola Vannucchi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, analysis and experimental data.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Vannucchi, P., Spagnuolo, E., Aretusini, S. et al. Past seismic slip-to-the-trench recorded in Central America megathrust. Nature Geosci 10, 935–940 (2017).

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