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

  • Nature Geosciencevolume 10pages935940 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41561-017-0013-4
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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.

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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


  1. Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, UK

    • Paola Vannucchi
  2. Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra Università di Firenze, Firenze, Italy

    • Paola Vannucchi
  3. Sezione di Sismologia e Tettonofisica, Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Roma, Italy

    • Elena Spagnuolo
  4. School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, Manchester University, Manchester, UK

    • Stefano Aretusini
    •  & Giulio Di Toro
  5. Dipartimento di Geoscienze, Università di Padova, Padova, Italy

    • Giulio Di Toro
  6. Department of Geosciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Japan

    • Kohtaro Ujiie
  7. Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan

    • Akito Tsutsumi
  8. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Durham, Durham, UK

    • Stefan Nielsen


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paola Vannucchi.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary methods, analysis and experimental data.