The generation of large earthquakes

Abstract

Despite decades of observational, laboratory and theoretical studies, the processes leading to large earthquake generation remain enigmatic. However, recent observations provide new promising perspectives that advance knowledge. Here, we review data on the initiation processes of large earthquakes and show that they are multiscale and diverse, involving localization of deformation, fault heterogeneities and variable local loading rate effects. Analyses of seismic and geodetic data reveal evidence for regional weakening by earthquake-induced rock damage and progressive localization of deformation around the eventual rupture zones a few years before some large earthquakes. The final phase of deformation localization includes, depending on conditions, a mixture of slow slip transients and foreshocks at multiple spatial and temporal scales. The evolution of slip on large, localized faults shows a step-like increase that might reflect stress loading by previous failures, which can produce larger dynamic slip, in contrast to the smooth acceleration expected for a growing aseismic nucleation phase. We propose an integrated model to explain the diversity of large earthquake generation from progressive volumetric deformation to localized slip, which motivates future near-fault seismic and geodetic studies with dense sensor networks and improved analysis techniques that can resolve multiscale processes.

Key points

  • Progressive localization of shear deformation was observed before several Mw > 7 shallow crustal earthquakes. Some mainshocks were also preceded by immediate foreshock sequences or slow slip.

  • A step-like increase in fault slip driven by a combination of migrating slow slip transients and foreshocks occurred before some megathrust earthquakes in subduction zones. The intermittent increase in fault slip loads nearby locked regions, increasing the likelihood of subsequent large earthquakes.

  • The initiation processes of large, natural earthquakes are diverse and include localization of deformation and complexities of subsequent slip, owing to strength heterogeneity, fault roughness and variable local loading-rate effects.

  • Integrated, high-resolution seismic and geodetic observations, including additional near-fault sensors and advanced analysis techniques, are needed to improve the knowledge on the combination of aseismic slip and seismic sequences that lead to the occurrence of large, natural earthquakes.

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Fig. 1: Generation of rock damage by background events around rupture zones of future large earthquakes.
Fig. 2: Localization of background events in eastern Southern California before Mw > 7 earthquakes.
Fig. 3: Step-like increase in fault slip before the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake.
Fig. 4: Step-like increase in fault slip before the 2014 Iquique, Chile Mw 8.2 earthquake.
Fig. 5: The 2013–2014 Boso slow slip event.
Fig. 6: Characteristics of the nucleation phase for individual ruptures under different background loading rates in laboratory experiments.
Fig. 7: Schematic illustrations of generation processes of large earthquakes.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to I. Zaliapin for helping to produce Figs 1,2, R. Hino for providing seafloor-level data, J. Fukuda for contributing Fig. 5 and S. Guérin-Marthe for contributing Fig. 6. They acknowledge support by JSPS KAKENHI grant number JP16H06473, JST CREST grant number JPMJCR1763, Earthquake and Volcano Hazards Observation and Research Program in MEXT, the US National Science Foundation (grant EAR-1722561) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (based on NSF Cooperative Agreement EAR-1600087 and USGS Cooperative Agreement G17AC00047).

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A.K. and Y.B.-Z. both discussed the outline of the Review and wrote the article together.

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Correspondence to Aitaro Kato.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks Ze’ev Reches and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Kato, A., Ben-Zion, Y. The generation of large earthquakes. Nat Rev Earth Environ (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-00108-w

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