Frequent observations of identical onsets of large and small earthquakes

Abstract

Every gigantic earthquake begins as a tiny rock failure at almost a point, followed by successive slip of the complex fault system, before radiating strong shaking from a vast rupture area extending over hundreds of kilometres. Whether the growth process of the rupture of a large earthquake is predictable and whether it produces observable signatures different from that of smaller events1,2,3,4,5 are fundamental questions related to the potential for earthquake early warning and probabilistic forecasting. Inspired by a recent discovery that large earthquakes might have seismic waves, and probably rupture processes, that are almost identical to those of smaller events6,7,8, we show that such similarity characterized by large cross-correlation is a common feature of earthquakes in the Tohoku–Hokkaido subduction zone, Japan. A systematic comparison of 15 years of high-sensitivity seismograph records for approximately 100,000 events reveals 80 extremely similar and 390 very similar pairs of large (moment magnitude M > 4.5) and small (M < 4.0) earthquakes, co-located within about 100 metres. An extremely high similarity is observed for pairs of subduction-type earthquakes (170 of 899 large events) separated by a long period of up to 15 years, whereas for pairs of other types of large earthquakes only the foreshocks and aftershocks are similar. This frequently occurring similarity between different-sized subduction-type earthquakes suggests repeated cascading rupture processes in a widespread hierarchical structure9,10,11,12 along the plate interface and indicates a specific but probabilistically limited predictability of the final size of the earthquake (that is, the location and a set of possible sizes of an earthquake are well predicted, but its final size is not at all well constrained).

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Fig. 1: Distribution of large earthquakes (M > 4.5) considered in this study, showing their beachball focal mechanism solutions.
Fig. 2: Comparison between the seismograms of a large (black) and a small (red) earthquake.
Fig. 3: CCmax histograms for different groups of events.
Fig. 4: Schematic illustration of a hierarchical structure that produces almost identical initial waveforms, regardless of the size of the earthquake.

Data availability

All waveform data are available from the NIED Hi-net server (http://www.hinet.bosai.go.jp).

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by funding from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) of Japan, under its Earthquake and Volcano Hazards Observation and Research Program, JSPS KAKENHI 16H02219 and MEXT KAKENHI 16H06477. All data were obtained from the NIED Hi-net data server. Figures were prepared using the Generic Mapping Tools.

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Correspondence to Satoshi Ide.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Comparison between the seismograms of large (black trace) and small (red trace) earthquakes for dissimilar onsets.

CCmax ≈ 0.6. ‘Bad example’ indicates that compared to many pairs having CCmax above 0.8, this value of 0.6 is small. The acceleration record, scaled by the noise level (left) and amplitude of the small event (middle left), and the velocity record, scaled by the onset of the small event (middle right) and large event (right), are shown for each station, with the appropriate scales shown in the bottom left-hand corner of each waveform set (micrometre per second per second for acceleration; micrometre per second for velocity). The grey box in each acceleration plot shows the time window used to calculate CCmax. The value of CCmax for each station is shown below the station name in each acceleration plot. The takeoff angle and azimuth (degrees) from the source to each station are shown below the station name in each velocity plot.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figures Comparison between the seismograms of large (black) and small (red) earthquakes. The 80 figures show details of the 80 earthquake pairs for which CCmax > 0.9 are presented. The information relating to the occurrence time (YYYYMMDDhhmmss), hypocentre locations, and magnitude of each event are provided in the upper left-hand corner of each page, along with the corresponding CCmax value. The acceleration record, scaled by the noise level (left) and amplitude of the small event (middle left), and the velocity record, scaled by the onset of the small event (middle right) and large event (right), are shown for each station, with the appropriate scales shown in the bottom left-hand corner of each waveform set (micrometre per second2 for acceleration; micrometre per second for velocity). The grey box in each acceleration plot shows the time window used to calculate CCmax. The value of CCmax for each station is shown below the station name in each acceleration plot. The takeoff angle and azimuth (degrees) from the source to each station are shown below the station name in each velocity plot

Supplementary Table 1

Earthquake pairs of the subduction type with CCmax >0.8.

Supplementary Table 2

Earthquake pairs of other type with CCmax>0.8.

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Ide, S. Frequent observations of identical onsets of large and small earthquakes. Nature 573, 112–116 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1508-5

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