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Migrating pattern of deformation prior to the Tohoku-Oki earthquake revealed by GRACE data


Understanding how and when far-field continuous motions lead to giant subduction earthquakes remains a challenge. An important limitation comes from an incomplete description of aseismic mass fluxes at depth along plate boundaries. Here we analyse Earth’s gravity field variations derived from GRACE satellite data in a wide space-time domain surrounding the Mw 9.0 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. We show that this earthquake is the extreme expression of initially silent deformation migrating from depth to the surface across the entire subduction system. Our analysis indeed reveals large-scale gravity and mass changes throughout three tectonic plates and connected slabs, starting a few months before March 2011. Before the Tohoku-Oki earthquake rupture, the gravity variations can be explained by aseismic extension of the Pacific plate slab at mid-upper mantle depth, concomitant with increasing seismicity in the shallower slab. For more than two years after the rupture, the deformation propagated far into the Pacific and Philippine Sea plate interiors, suggesting that subduction accelerated along 2,000 km of the plate boundaries in March 2011. This gravitational image of the earthquake’s long-term dynamics provides unique information on deep and crustal processes over intermediate timescales, which could be used in seismic hazard assessment.

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Fig. 1: Pre-, co- and post-seismic variations of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake gravity signal.
Fig. 2: Time series of the gravity signals at different stages of their analysis.
Fig. 3: Detection of anomalous gravity variations around Japan.
Fig. 4: Space-time diagram of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake gravity signals.
Fig. 5: Synthetic gravity signals from co-seismic slip, afterslip and mantle visco-elasticity.


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We thank CNES for financial support through the TOSCA committee. C.N. acknowledges the financial support from the UnivEarthS LabEx programme of Sorbonne Paris Cité (ANR-10-LABX-0023 and ANR-11-IDEX-0005-02). We thank H. Perfettini for providing co-seismic and post-seismic slip distribution models and their predicted surface displacements. We thank G. Métris for providing the software for the differentiation of spherical harmonics, and B. Romanowicz for important comments on the manuscript and the figures. Valuable reviews, including a review by K. Heki, contributed to significantly improve our work. All figures have been made using the GMT software. This is IPGP contribution number 3926.

Author contributions

I.P. designed the four-dimensional gravity analysis and performed all data analyses. S.B., D.R. and I.P. conducted the gravity modelling of earthquake-related signals and wrote the corresponding sections of the Supplementary Information. C.N. conceived the pre-seismic statistical data analysis and the space-time diagram. J-M.L. provided information on the GRACE geoid models. All authors discussed the analyses and their results at all stages. I.P. wrote the manuscript and data analysis sections of the Supplementary Information with input from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Isabelle Panet.

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Panet, I., Bonvalot, S., Narteau, C. et al. Migrating pattern of deformation prior to the Tohoku-Oki earthquake revealed by GRACE data. Nature Geosci 11, 367–373 (2018).

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