Some facts about aftershocks to large earthquakes in California

Open-File Report 96-266




Earthquakes occur in clusters. After one earthquake happens, we usually see others at nearby (or identical) locations. To talk about this phenomenon, seismologists coined three terms foreshock , mainshock , and aftershock. In any cluster of earthquakes, the one with the largest magnitude is called the mainshock; earthquakes that occur before the mainshock are called foreshocks while those that occur after the mainshock are called aftershocks. A mainshock will be redefined as a foreshock if a subsequent event in the cluster has a larger magnitude.

Aftershock sequences follow predictable patterns. That is, a sequence of aftershocks follows certain global patterns as a group, but the individual earthquakes comprising the group are random and unpredictable. This relationship between the pattern of a group and the randomness (stochastic nature) of the individuals has a close parallel in actuarial statistics. We can describe the pattern that aftershock sequences tend to follow with well-constrained equations. However, we must keep in mind that the actual aftershocks are only probabilistically described by these equations. Once the parameters in these equations have been estimated, we can determine the probability of aftershocks occurring in various space, time and magnitude ranges as described below.

Clustering of earthquakes usually occurs near the location of the mainshock. The stress on the mainshock's fault changes drastically during the mainshock and that fault produces most of the aftershocks. This causes a change in the regional stress, the size of which decreases rapidly with distance from the mainshock. Sometimes the change in stress caused by the mainshock is great enough to trigger aftershocks on other, nearby faults. While there is no hard "cutoff" distance beyond which an earthquake is totally incapable of triggering an aftershock, the vast majority of aftershocks are located close to the mainshock. As a rule of thumb, we consider earthquakes to be aftershocks if they are located within a characteristic distance from the mainshock. This distance is usually taken to be one or two times the length of the fault rupture associated with the mainshock. For example, if the mainshock ruptured a 100 km length of a fault, subsequent earthquakes up to 100-200 km away from the mainshock rupture would be considered aftershocks. The fault rupture length was approximately 15 km in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and 430 km in the great 1906 earthquake.

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USGS Numbered Series
Some facts about aftershocks to large earthquakes in California
Series title:
Open-File Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Volcano Hazards Program
4 p.
United States