Pulverization provides a mechanism for the nucleation of earthquakes at low stress on strong faults

Frontiers in Earth Science



An earthquake occurs when rock that has been deformed under stress rebounds elastically along a fault plane (Gilbert, 1884; Reid, 1911), radiating seismic waves through the surrounding earth. Rupture along the entire fault surface does not spontaneously occur at the same time, however. Rather the rupture starts in one tiny area, the rupture nucleation zone, and spreads sequentially along the fault. Like a row of dominoes, one bit of rebounding fault triggers the next. This triggering is understood to occur because of the large dynamic stresses at the tip of an active seismic rupture. The importance of these crack tip stresses is a central question in earthquake physics. The crack tip stresses are minimally important, for example, in the time predictable earthquake model (Shimazaki and Nakata, 1980), which holds that prior to rupture stresses are comparable to fault strength in many locations on the future rupture plane, with bits of variation. The stress/strength ratio is highest at some point, which is where the earthquake nucleates. This model does not require any special conditions or processes at the nucleation site; the whole fault is essentially ready for rupture at the same time. The fault tip stresses ensure that the rupture occurs as a single rapid earthquake, but the fact that fault tip stresses are high is not particularly relevant since the stress at most points does not need to be raised by much. Under this model it should technically be possible to forecast earthquakes based on the stress-renewaql concept, or estimates of when the fault as a whole will reach the critical stress level, a practice used in official hazard mapping (Field, 2008). This model also indicates that physical precursors may be present and detectable, since stresses are unusually high over a significant area before a large earthquake.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Pulverization provides a mechanism for the nucleation of earthquakes at low stress on strong faults
Series title Frontiers in Earth Science
DOI 10.3389/feart.2014.00020
Volume 2
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher Frontiers Media
Contributing office(s) Earthquake Science Center
Description Article 20; 4 p.
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