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Stress on the seismogenic and deep creep plate interface during the earthquake cycle in subduction zones


The deep creep plate interface extends from the down-dip edge of the seismogenic zone down to the base of the overlying lithosphere in subduction zones. Seismogenic/deep creep zone interaction during the earthquake cycle produces spatial and temporal variations in strains within the surrounding elastic material. Strain observations in the Nankai subduction zone show distinct deformation styles in the co-seismic, post-seismic, and inter-seismic phases associated with the 1946 great earthquake. The most widely used kinematic model to match geodetic observations has been a 2-D Savage-type model where a plate interface is placed in an elastic half-space and co-seismic slip occurs in the upper seismogenic portion of the interface, while inter-seismic deformation is modeled by a locked seismogenic zone and a constant slip velocity across the deep creep interface. Here, I use the simplest possible 2-D mechanical model with just two blocks to study the stress interaction between the seismogenic and deep creep zones. The seismogenic zone behaves as a stick-slip interface where co-seismic slip or stress drop constrain the model. A linear constitutive law for the deep creep zone connects the shear stress (σ) to the slip velocity across the plate interface (s′) with the material property of interface viscosity (ζ ) as: σ = ζ s′. The analytic solution for the steady-state two-block model produces simple formulas that connect some spatially-averaged geodetic observations to model quantities. Aside from the basic subduction zone geometry, the key observed parameter is τ, the characteristic time of the rapid post-seismic slip in the deep creep interface. Observations of τ range from about 5 years (Nankai and Alaska) to 15 years (Chile). The simple model uses these values for τ to produce estimates for ζ that range from 8.4 × 1013 Pa/m/s (in Nankai) to 6.5 × 1014 Pa/m/s (in Chile). Then, the model predicts that the shear stress acting on deep creep interface averaged over the earthquake cycle ranges from 0.1 MPa (Nankai) to 1.7 MPa (Chile). These absolute stress values for the deep creep zone are slightly smaller than the great earthquake stress drops. Since the great earthquake recurrence time ( T recur) is much larger than τ for Nankai, Alaska, and Chile, the model predicts that rapid post-seismic creep should re-load the seismogenic zone to about (1/3) of the co-seismic change; geodetically observed values range from about (1/10) to more than (1/2). Also, for the case of (Trecur/τ) 1, the model predicts that the slip velocity across the deep creep interface during the inter-seismic phase should be about (2/3) the plate tectonic velocity (R). Thus the deep creep velocity used in Savage-type models should be less than R. Even complex 3-D models with non-linear creep laws should make a similar prediction for inter-seismic deep creep rates. At present, it seems that geodetic observations at Nankai and other subduction zones are more consistent with a deep creep rate of R rather than (2/3) R. This discrepancy is quite puzzling and is difficult to explain in the context of a 2-D steady-state earthquake cycle model. Future observational and modeling studies should examine this apparent discrepancy to gain more understanding of the earthquake cycle in subduction zones.


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Correspondence to Larry J. Ruff.

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Ruff, L.J. Stress on the seismogenic and deep creep plate interface during the earthquake cycle in subduction zones. Earth Planet Sp 53, 307–320 (2001).

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  • Subduction Zone
  • Stress Drop
  • Seismogenic Zone
  • Plate Interface
  • Coseismic Slip