Experimental evidence that thrust earthquake ruptures might open faults

Vahe Gabuchian, Ares J. Rosakis, Harsha S. Bhat, Raúl Madariaga, Hiroo Kanamori

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations

Abstract

Many of Earth's great earthquakes occur on thrust faults. These earthquakes predominantly occur within subduction zones, such as the 2011 moment magnitude 9.0 eathquake in Tohoku-Oki, Japan, or along large collision zones, such as the 1999 moment magnitude 7.7 earthquake in Chi-Chi, Taiwan. Notably, these two earthquakes had a maximum slip that was very close to the surface. This contributed to the destructive tsunami that occurred during the Tohoku-Oki event and to the large amount of structural damage caused by the Chi-Chi event. The mechanism that results in such large slip near the surface is poorly understood as shallow parts of thrust faults are considered to be frictionally stable. Here we use earthquake rupture experiments to reveal the existence of a torquing mechanism of thrust fault ruptures near the free surface that causes them to unclamp and slip large distances. Complementary numerical modelling of the experiments confirms that the hanging-wall wedge undergoes pronounced rotation in one direction as the earthquake rupture approaches the free surface, this torque is released as soon as the rupture breaks the free surface, resulting in the unclamping and violent flapping of the hanging-wall wedge. Our results imply that the shallow extent of the seismogenic zone of a subducting interface is not fixed and can extend up to the trench during great earthquakes through a torquing mechanism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)336-339
Number of pages4
JournalNature
Volume545
Issue number7654
DOIs
StatePublished - 18 May 2017
Externally publishedYes

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