Fundamental processes of the seismic cycle in subduction zones, including those controlling the recurrence and size of great earthquakes, are still poorly understood. Here, by studying the 2016 earthquake in southern Chile—the first large event within the rupture zone of the 1960 earthquake (moment magnitude (Mw) = 9.5)—we show that the frictional zonation of the plate interface fault at depth mechanically controls the timing of more frequent, moderate-size deep events (Mw < 8) and less frequent, tsunamigenic great shallow earthquakes (Mw > 8.5). We model the evolution of stress build-up for a seismogenic zone with heterogeneous friction to examine the link between the 2016 and 1960 earthquakes. Our results suggest that the deeper segments of the seismogenic megathrust are weaker and interseismically loaded by a more strongly coupled, shallower asperity. Deeper segments fail earlier (~60 yr recurrence), producing moderate-size events that precede the failure of the shallower region, which fails in a great earthquake (recurrence >110 yr). We interpret the contrasting frictional strength and lag time between deeper and shallower earthquakes to be controlled by variations in pore fluid pressure. Our integrated analysis strengthens understanding of the mechanics and timing of great megathrust earthquakes, and therefore could aid in the seismic hazard assessment of other subduction zones.

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This work is supported by the German Science Foundation (DFG) grants MO3157/2-3 (M.M., J.R.B.) and SCHU2460/3-1 (C.S.), Millennium Scientific Initiative (ICM) grant NC160025 "CYCLO - the seismic cycle along subduction zones" (D.M., A.T.), Chilean National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) grant PAI-MEC 2016 (M.M.), FONDECYT 1150321 (D.M.), and Helmholtz Graduate Research School GeoSim (S.L.). ALOS original data are copyright of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and provided under proposal 1161 (M.Mo.). This study was encouraged by discussions with B. Schurr and I. Urrutia. We thank Armada de Chile for hosting our cGPS stations GUAF (Faro Guafo) and MELK (Melinka).

Author information


  1. GFZ Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, German Research Centre for Geosciences, Telegrafenberg, Potsdam, Germany

    • M. Moreno
    • , S. Li
    • , J. R. Bedford
    • , M. Motagh
    • , S. Metzger
    • , C. Sippl
    • , Z. Deng
    •  & O. Oncken
  2. Departamento de Geofísica, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y Matemáticas, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción, Chile

    • M. Moreno
  3. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA

    • S. Li
  4. Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra, TAQUACH, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Chile

    • D. Melnick
  5. Millennium Nucleus The Seismic Cycle Along Subduction Zones, Valdivia, Concepción, Chile

    • D. Melnick
    •  & A. Tassara
  6. Centro Sismológico National, Universidad de Chile, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y Matemáticas, Santiago, Chile

    • J. C. Baez
  7. Institute of Photogrammetry and GeoInformation, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Hannover, Germany

    • M. Motagh
    •  & S. Vajedian
  8. Institut für Planetare Geodäsie, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany

    • B.D. Gutknecht
  9. Departamento de Geofísica, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y Matemáticas, Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile

    • E. Contreras-Reyes
  10. Departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra, Facultad de Ciencias Químicas, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción, Chile

    • A. Tassara


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M.M. and S.L. conceived the original idea, which was elaborated with J.R.B., D.M. and O.O. M.M. and S.L performed all numerical simulations. J.R.B. performed the slip inversions. S.M., M.Mo. and S.V. processed the InSAR data. J.C.B. and Z.D. processed the GPS data. S.M. performed the time series analysis of GPS data. B.D.G. performed the stress anomaly model. C.S. processed the seismological data. E.C. performed the processing of seismic reflection data. D.M. installed cGPS stations. The manuscript was written by M.M. with comments from D.M., J.R.B., S.L., C.S., S.M., O.O., E.C. and A.T.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to M. Moreno.

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