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Central shutdown and surrounding activation of aftershocks from megathrust earthquake stress transfer

Abstract

Megathrust earthquakes release and transfer stress that has accumulated over hundreds of years, leading to large aftershocks that can be highly destructive. Understanding the spatiotemporal pattern of megathrust aftershocks is key to mitigating the seismic hazard. However, conflicting observations show aftershocks concentrated either along the rupture surface itself, along its periphery or well beyond it, and they can persist for a few years to decades. Here we present aftershock data following the four largest megathrust earthquakes since 1960, focusing on the change in seismicity rate following the best-recorded 2011 Tohoku earthquake, which shows an initially high aftershock rate on the rupture surface that quickly shuts down, while a zone up to ten times larger forms a ring of enhanced seismicity around it. We find that the aftershock pattern of Tohoku and the three other megathrusts can be explained by rate and state Coulomb stress transfer. We suggest that the shutdown in seismicity in the rupture zone may persist for centuries, leaving seismicity gaps that can be used to identify prehistoric megathrust events. In contrast, the seismicity of the surrounding area decays over 4–6 decades, increasing the seismic hazard after a megathrust earthquake.

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Fig. 1: Aftershocks of M ≥9.0 megathrust ruptures since 1960.
Fig. 2: Change in seismicity rate beginning 5 yr after the Tohoku M 9 earthquake.
Fig. 3: Cross-sections of seismicity-rate and stress change for the Tohoku M 9 earthquake.
Fig. 4: Modelled response of seismicity to a megathrust earthquake.
Fig. 5: Contemporary gaps in seismicity could represent prehistoric megathrust earthquakes.

Data availability

We used the USGS ANSS catalogue (https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/search/), the JMA catalogue (https://www.data.jma.go.jp/svd/eqev/data/daily_map/index.html and https://www.data.jma.go.jp/svd/eqev/data/bulletin/eqdoc.html) and the NIED F-net focal mechanism catalogue (https://www.fnet.bosai.go.jp/event/search). We also used a published 1960 Chile earthquake catalogue25, and a published 1960–1966 Alaska earthquake catalogue43. All seismic slip (‘finite fault’) models are published and cited; those also available from http://equake-rc.info/SRCMOD/searchmodels/allevents/ include the 2003 Tokachi-oki57 and 2011 Tohoku58 earthquakes (used for Coulomb calculations) and 1944 Tonankai53, 1946 Nankai53 and 2010 Maule59 (used for display in figures). Seismic slip models available only from publications include the 1700 M ~9.0 Cascadia52, 1762 M ~8.8 Arakan49, 1868 M ~9.0 Arica, Peru–Chile51, 1906 M ~8.8 Ecuador50, 1952 Kamchatka48, 1960 Valdivia24, 1964 Prince William Sound44 and 2004 Sumatra45 earthquakes. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The numerical methodology used in this study is described in Methods and in refs. 55,56. We used the Coulomb 3.3 software60,61,62,63,64 (software, tutorial files and user guide accessible via http://www.temblor.net/coulomb). For magnitude of completeness and aftershock decay calculations, we used ZMAP18 (http://www.seismo.ethz.ch/en/research-and-teaching/products-software/software/ZMAP/ and https://github.com/swiss-seismological-service/zmap7).

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Scholz, T. Parsons and W. Thatcher for insightful comments on the manuscript. We gratefully acknowledge support from the SBIR programme of the US National Science Foundation (R.S.S.) and the WTW Research Network (R.S.S.). The funders were provided with the manuscript upon submission, but had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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S.T. and R.S.S. contributed equally to the ideas, methods, text and figures in this study.

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Correspondence to Shinji Toda or Ross S. Stein.

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Nature Geoscience thanks Lingling Ye, Olaf Zielke and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Louise Hawkins, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Seismicity time series in the simplified corona and core areas.

a, Map of the seismicity rate change. The 13 Feb M 7.1, 20 Mar M 7.1, and 1 May M 6.9 earthquakes in 2021 are shown as stars. b, Time series of earthquakes in the corona. Notice that the post-M 9 rate in the core has remained low for twice the duration of the several low-rate preseismic periods. c, Time series of earthquakes in the core. We use quartiles to evaluate uncertainty because the rates are not normally distributed. d-e, Omori decay parameters fitted using ref. 18. Notice the smaller earthquakes and steeper decay (p exponent) in the core than in the corona.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Relationship between seismicity rate change and postseismic slip.

a, Seismicity rate change for 2003 Tokachi-Oki, with coseismic57 and postseismic slip during the first year34. Here we compare the period 5-10 yr after the quake (2008/09/26 - 2011/03) to the 5.7-yr background period (1998/01/01-2003/09/25). b. Seismicity associated with 2010 Maule (ANSS M ≥ 4.5 catalog), with coseismic59 and postseismic slip61. c, Postseismic slip during the first 8 months after 2011 Tohoku32 superimposed on Figs. 1a and 2a. Panel a (right) adapted with permission from ref. 34, Springer Nature Limited. Panel b (right) reproduced with permission from ref. 59, John Wiley and Sons.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Corona growth with time, and Coulomb stress imparted to focal mechanisms in the core and corona.

a–b, Two-day and two-month corona extent. c, Simplified core area with beachballs colored by maximum Coulomb stress change. Because for each mechanism, we take the nodal plane with the most positive (maximum) stress change, these results could be biased toward stress increases. Mechanisms from 1998/01/01 - 2011/03/10, M ≥ 3, depth≤150 km, from F-Net catalog.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Model of seismicity evolution in a heterogeneous faulting environment.

a, Simulated time histories given a standard deviation 3 times larger than a mean stress decrease. ta is the aftershock duration in rate/state friction. Each curve is a mean of 10,000 Monte Carlo simulations. b, Time history given a standard deviation equal to a mean stress increase. c–d, Time histories under different assumptions for the mean and standard deviation of the stress changes. e, Figure from Scholz (1988)26. The concentration of longer-lasting aftershocks at the periphery resembles our corona, while the briefer aftershocks (A) that fade into quiescence (Q1) at a rate lower than the background (B) resemble our core. Panel e adapted with permission from ref. 26, Springer Nature Limited.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Comparison of our model with results of Parsons (2002).

a, This study. b, Fig. 9 of Parsons (2002)11. For simplicity, we have colored the curves and removed the uncertainty bounds. Parsons reported that aftershocks with shear stress increases (red curve, b) tend to locate 25 km father from the moment centroids than aftershocks with the shear stress decreases (blue curve, b). Thus, the decreases could occur in or near the core, and the increases in or near the corona.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Seismicity holes evident today along major subduction zones for seismicity beginning after the megathrust in Fig. 1 struck.

a, Japan Trench, b, Sunda Trench, c, Alaska-Aleutian Trench, d, Peru–Chile Trench. For c–d, we begin when the seismic catalog detection markedly improves in about 1976. All maps are at the same scale.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Seismicity holes associated with candidate historic or prehistoric megathrust earthquakes.

a, The Commander (Komandor) Seismic Gap extends for 700 km along the northwest Aleutian Trench41, 60, where oblique slip is partitioned between subduction convergence and a parallel back-arc transform fault. b, The hole is most evident for subduction mechanisms6. c, The Makran Deformation Front (Makran Trench) appears to have two holes, the eastern hole at the site of a 1765 earthquake, and the western hole perhaps associated with the debated 1483 earthquake42, 61, 62.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Masking swarms and secondary aftershocks in the seismicity rate change map.

a, All data. b, Map of coefficient of variation of seismicity inter-event times with site 1 for a seismic swarm and site 2 aftershocks of a secondary mainshock during the pre-M 9 period, and site 3, steady background seismicity. c, Same as a but with sites of COV ≥ 3 masked.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 9 Schematic illustration of how seismicity rate changes are derived from stress imparted to focal mechanisms.

a, Each focal mechanism is a proxy for a small-to-moderate fault on which that earthquake stuck (top panel in a). These earthquakes then receive coseismic stress from a nearby mainshock (second panel in a), some promoting failure (red) and some inhibiting failure (blue). The applied stress amplifies or diminishes the background seismicity rate (bottom panel in a), according the the seismicity rate equation21. Finally, to make a map of forecast seismicity as in Fig. 2b, the updated numbers on the focal mechanism plots in the bottom panel in a are spatially smoothed by a moving kernel on the grid nodes. This illustration is from ref. 56. b, Map of the Learning Period earthquakes (M ≥ 6.5 during 3-11-2011 to 3-10-2016) that are used in the model. Panel a reproduced with permission from ref. 45, Seismological Society of America.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 2a

Fig. 2a (and Extended Data Fig. 8a) numerical file.

Source Data Fig. 2b

Fig. 2b (without removal of COV areas) numerical file.

Source Data Fig. 3a

Fig. 3a numerical file.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 8a

Extended Data Fig. 8a (and Fig. 2a) numerical file.

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Toda, S., Stein, R.S. Central shutdown and surrounding activation of aftershocks from megathrust earthquake stress transfer. Nat. Geosci. 15, 494–500 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-022-00954-x

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