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Great (≥Mw8.0) megathrust earthquakes and the subduction of excess sediment and bathymetrically smooth seafloor

March 11, 2015

Using older and in part flawed data, Ruff (1989) suggested that thick sediment entering the subduction zone (SZ) smooths and strengthens the trench-parallel distribution of interplate coupling. This circumstance was conjectured to favor rupture continuation and the generation of high-magnitude (≥Mw8.0) interplate thrust (IPT) earthquakes. Using larger and more accurate compilations of sediment thickness and instrumental (1899 to January 2013) and pre-instrumental era (1700–1898) IPTs (n = 176 and 12, respectively), we tested if a compelling relation existed between where IPT earthquakes ≥Mw7.5 occurred and where thick (≥1.0 km) versus thin (≤1.0 km) sedimentary sections entered the SZ.

Based on the new compilations, a statistically supported statement (see Summary and Conclusions) can be made that high-magnitude earthquakes are most prone to nucleate at well-sedimented SZs. For example, despite the 7500 km shorter global length of thick-sediment trenches, they account for ∼53% of instrumental era IPTs ≥Mw8.0, ∼75% ≥Mw8.5, and 100% ≥Mw9.1. No megathrusts >Mw9.0 ruptured at thin-sediment trenches, whereas three occurred at thick-sediment trenches (1960 Chile Mw9.5, 1964 Alaska Mw9.2, and 2004 Sumatra Mw9.2).

However, large Mw8.0–9.0 IPTs commonly (n = 23) nucleated at thin-sediment trenches. These earthquakes are associated with the subduction of low-relief ocean floor and where the debris of subduction erosion thickens the plate-separating subduction channel. The combination of low bathymetric relief and subduction erosion is inferred to also produce a smooth trench-parallel distribution of coupling posited to favor the characteristic lengthy rupturing of high-magnitude IPT earthquakes. In these areas subduction of a weak sedimentary sequence further enables rupture continuation.

Publication Year 2015
Title Great (≥Mw8.0) megathrust earthquakes and the subduction of excess sediment and bathymetrically smooth seafloor
DOI 10.1130/GES01079.1
Authors David W. Scholl, Stephe H. Kirby, Roland E. von Huene, Holly F. Ryan, Ray E. Wells, Eric L. Geist
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Geosphere
Index ID 70148007
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center