We use the finite element method to analyze stress variations in and near a strongly coupled subduction zone during an earthquake cycle. Deformation is assumed to be uniform along strike (plane strain on a cross section normal to the trench axis), and periodic earthquake slip is imposed consistent with the long-term rate of plate convergence and degree of coupling. Simulations of stress and displacement rate fields represent periodic fluctuations in time superimposed on an average field. The oceanic plate, descending slab, and continental lithosphere are assumed here to respond elastically to these fluctuations, and the remaining mantle under and between plates is assumed to respond as Maxwell viscoelastic. In the first part of the analysis we find that computed stress fluctuations in space and time are generally consistent with observed earthquake mechanism variations with time since a great thrust event. In particular, trench-normal extensional earthquakes tend to occur early in the earthquake cycle toward the outer rise but occur more abundantly late in the cycle in the subducting slab downdip of the main thrust zone. Compressional earthquakes, when they occur at all, have the opposite pattern. Our results suggest also that the actual timing of extensional outer rise events is controlled by the rheology of the shallow aseismic portion of the thrust interface. The second part of the analysis shows the effects of mantle relaxation on the rate of ground surface deformation during the earthquake cycle. Models without relaxation predict a strong overall compressional strain rate in the continental plate above the main thrust zone, with the strain rate constant between mainshocks. However with significant relaxation present, a localized region of unusually low compressional, or even slightly extensional, strain rate develops along the surface of the continental plate above and somewhat inland from the downdip edge of the locked main thrust zone. The low strain rate starts in the middle or late part of the cycle, depending on position. This result suggests that the negligible or small contraction measured on the Shumagin Islands, Alaska, during 1980 to 1991, may not invalidate an interpretation of that region as being a moderately coupled subduction zone. In contrast, mantle relaxation causes only modest temporal nonuniformity of uplift rates in the overriding plate and of extensional stress rates in the subducting plate, even when the Maxwell time is an order of magnitude less than the recurrence interval.
Additional publication details
Cyclic stressing and seismicity at strongly coupled subduction zones