Foreshock series controls earthquake rupture

A long lasting foreshock series controlled the rupture process of this year’s great earthquake near Iquique in northern Chile. The earthquake was heralded by a three quarter year long foreshock series of ever increasing magnitudes culminating in a Mw 6.7 event two weeks before the mainshock. The mainshock (magnitude 8.1) finally broke on April 1st a central piece out of the most important seismic gap along the South American subduction zone. An international research team under leadership of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences now revealed that the Iquique earthquake occurred in a region where the two colliding tectonic plates where only partly locked.

The Pacific Nazca plate and the South American plate are colliding along South America’s western coast. While the Pacific sea floor submerges in an oceanic trench under the South American coast the plates get stressed until occasionally relieved by earthquakes. In about 150 years time the entire plate margin from Patagonia in the south to Panama in the north breaks once completely through in great earthquakes. This cycle is almost complete with the exception of a last segment – the seismic gap near Iquique in northern Chile. The last great earthquake in this gap occurred back in 1877. On initiative of the GFZ this gap was monitored in an international cooperation (GFZ, Institut de Physique du Globe Paris, Centro Sismologico National – Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Catolica del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile) by the Integrated Plate Boundary Observatory Chile (IPOC), with among other instruments seismographs and cont. GPS. This long and continuous monitoring effort makes the Iquique earthquake the best recorded subduction megathrust earthquake globally. The fact that data of IPOC is distributed to the scientific community in near real time, allowed this timely analysis.

Ruptures in Detail

The mainshock of magnitude 8.1 broke the 150 km long central piece of the seismic gap, leaving, however, two large segments north and south intact. GFZ scientist Bernd Schurr headed the newly published study that appeared in the lastest issue of Nature Advance Online Publication: “The foreshocks skirted around the central rupture patch of the mainshock, forming several clusters that propagated from south to north.” The long-term earthquake catalogue derived from IPOC data revealed that stresses were increasing along the plate boundary in the years before the earthquake. Hence, the plate boundary started to gradually unlock through the foreshock series under increasing stresses, until it finally broke in the Iquique earthquake. Schurr further states: “If we use the from GPS data derived locking map to calculate the convergence deficit assuming the ~6.7 cm/yr convergence rate and subtract the earthquakes known since 1877, this still adds up to a possible M 8.9 earthquake.” This applies if the entire seismic gap would break at once. However, the region of the Iquique earthquake might now form a barrier that makes it more likely that the unbroken regions north and south break in separate, smaller earthquakes.

International Field Campaign

Despite the fact that the IPOC instruments delivered continuous data before, during and after the earthquake, the GFZ HART (Hazard And Risk Team) group went into the field to meet with international colleagues to conduct additional investigations. More than a dozen researchers continue to measure on site deformation and record aftershocks in the aftermath of this great rupture. Because the seismic gap is still not closed, IPOC gets further developed. So far 20 multi-parameter stations have been deployed. These consist of seismic broadband and strong-motion sensors, continuous GPS receivers, magneto-telluric and climate sensors, as well as creepmeters, which transmit data in near real-time to Potsdam. The European Southern astronomical Observatory has also been integrated into the observation network.

Study of Chilean quake shows potential for future earthquake

Near real-time analysis of the April 1 earthquake in Iquique, Chile, showed that the 8.2 event occurred in a gap on the fault unruptured since 1877 and that the April event was not what the scientists had expected, according to an international team of geologists.

“We assumed that the area of the 1877 earthquake would eventually rupture, but all indications are that this 8.2 event was not the 8.8 event we were looking for,” said Kevin P. Furlong, professor of geophysics, Penn State. “We looked at it to see if this was the big one.”

But according to the researchers, it was not. Seismologists expect that areas of faults will react the same way over and over. However, the April earthquake was about nine times less energetic than the one in 1877 and was incapable of releasing all the stress on the fault, leaving open the possibility of another earthquake.

The Iquique earthquake took place on the northern portion of the subduction zone formed when the Nazca tectonic plate slides under the South American plate. This is one of the longest uninterrupted plate boundaries on the planet and the site of many earthquakes and volcanos. The 8.2 earthquake was foreshadowed by a systematic sequence of foreshocks recorded at 6.0, 6.5, 6.7 and 6.2 with each foreshock triggering the next until the main earthquake occurred.

These earthquakes relieved the stresses on some parts of the fault. Then the 8.2 earthquake relieved more stress, followed by a series of aftershocks in the range of 7.7. While the aftershocks did fill in some of the gaps left by the 8.2 earthquake, the large earthquake and aftershocks could not fill in the entire gap where the fault had not ruptured in a very long time. That area is unruptured and still under stress.

The foreshocks eased some of the built up stress on 60 to 100 miles of fault, and the main shock released stress on about 155 miles, but about 155 miles of fault remain unchanged, the researchers report today (Aug. 13) in Nature.

“There can still be a big earthquake there,” said Furlong. “It didn’t release the total hazard, but it told us something about this large earthquake area. That an 8.8 rupture doesn’t always happen.”

The researchers were able to do this analysis in near real time because of the availability of large computing power and previously laid groundwork.

The computing power allowed researchers to model the fault more accurately. In the past, subduction zones were modeled as if they were on a plane, but the plate that is subducting curves underneath the other plate creating a 3-dimensional fault line. The researchers used a model that accounted for this curving and so more accurately recreated the stresses on the real geology at the fault.

“One of the things the U.S. Geological Survey and we have been doing is characterizing the major tectonic settings,” said Furlong. “So when an earthquake is imminent, we don’t need a lot of time for the background.”

In essence, they are creating a library of information about earthquake faults and have completed the first level, a general set of information on areas such as Japan, South America and the Caribbean. Now they are creating the levels of north and south Japan or Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Knowing where the old earthquake occurred, how large it was and how long ago it happened, the researchers could look at the foreshocks, see how much stress they relieved and anticipate, at least in a small way, what would happen.

“This is what we need to do in the future in near real time for decision makers,” said Furl.

Earth: Waves of disaster: Lessons from Japan and New Zealand

On Feb. 22, a magnitude-6.1 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, killing nearly 200 people and causing $12 billion in damage. About three weeks later, a massive magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck northern Honshu, Japan. The quake and tsunami killed about 30,000 people and caused an estimated $310 billion in damage. Both events are stark reminders of human vulnerability to natural disasters and provide a harsh reality check: Even technologically advanced countries with modern building codes are not immune from earthquake disasters.

Both events also offer lessons to be learned, as EARTH explores in the June features “Don’t Forget About the Christchurch Earthquake” and “Japan’s Megaquake and Killer Tsunamis.” What could have been done to prevent or mitigate the damage in both countries? And what can similar locations around the world learn? Furthermore, how did the March temblor and tsunami off the coast of Japan complicate the picture of foreshocks and aftershocks?

Discover what these events are teaching scientists about earthquakes, and read other stories on topics such as what scientists are doing to try to get ahead of the mysterious disease that’s killing bats in droves, what legacy can still be found in the sands of the D-Day beaches, and how the Japanese disaster may change the face of nuclear energy worldwide, all in the June issue. Plus, don’t miss the story about the new biofuel made from grass.

New findings on the developments of the earthquake disaster

The earthquake disaster on 11 March 2011 was an event of the century not only for Japan. With a magnitude of Mw = 8.9, it was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded worldwide. Particularly interesting is that here, two days before, a strong foreshock with a magnitude Mw = 7.2 took place almost exactly at the breaking point of the tsunami-earthquake. The geophysicist Joachim Saul from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences (Helmholtz Association) created an animation which shows the sequence of quakes since March 9.

The animated image is available at www.gfz-potsdam.de . It shows the earthquake activity in the region of Honshu, Japan, measured at the GFZ since 8 March 2011. After a seismically quiet 8th March, the morning (coordinated universal time UTC) of the March 9 began with an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 off the Japanese east coast, followed by a series of smaller aftershocks. The morning of March 11 sees the earthquake disaster that triggered the devastating tsunami. This earthquake is followed by many almost severe aftershocks, two of which almost reach the magnitude 8. In the following time period the activity slowly subsides, and is dominated today (March 16) by relatively small magnitude 5 quakes, though several earthquakes of magnitude 6 are being registered on a daily basis. The activity of aftershocks focuses mainly on the area of the March 11 earthquake. Based on the distribution of the aftershocks, the length of the fraction of the main quake can be estimated at about 400 km. Overall, 428 earthquakes in the region of Honshu were registered at the GFZ since March 9.

By analyzing over 500 GPS stations, the GFZ scientists Rongjiang Wang and Thomas Walter have found that horizontal displacements of up to five meters in an eastern direction occurred at the east coast of Japan. The cause lies in the earthquake zone, i.e. at the contact interface of the Pacific plate with Japan. Computer simulations of this surface show that an offset of up to 25 meters occurred during the earthquake. Calculations of the GFZ modeling group headed by Stephan Sobolev even yielded a displacement of up to 27 meters and a vertical movement of seven meters. This caused an abrupt elevation in the deep sea, and thus triggered the tsunami. The images of the GPS displacement vectors and the computer simulations can also be found among the online material provided by the GFZ.

Already shortly after the quake Andrey Babeyko and Stephan Sobolev of the GFZ modeled the propagation and wave heights of the tsunami in the Pacific over the first 16 hours. The tremendous force of the earthquake is highlighted here, too: in the open Pacific, relatively large wave heights of over one meter were calculated, which agrees very well with the observations. How high the tsunami is piled up on the coast is largely determined by water depth and the shape of the coastline. The GFZ material also contains an image and an animation regarding this work.