pure and applied geophysics

, Volume 129, Issue 1, pp 263–282

Do trench sediments affect great earthquake occurrence in subduction zones?

  • Larry J. Ruff

DOI: 10.1007/BF00874629

Cite this article as:
Ruff, L.J. PAGEOPH (1989) 129: 263. doi:10.1007/BF00874629


Seismic energy release is dominated by the underthrusting earthquakes in subduction zones, and this energy release is further concentrated in a few subduction zones. While some subduction zones are characterized by the occurrence of great earthquakes, others are relatively aseismic. This variation in maximum earthquake size between subduction zones is one of the most important features of global seismicity. Previous work has shown that the variation in maximum earthquake size is correlated with the variation in two other subduction zone properties: age of the subducting lithosphere and convergence rate. These two properties do not explain all the variance in maximum earthquake size. I propose that a third subduction zone property, “trench sediments”, explains part of the remaining variance in maximum earthquake size. Subduction zones are divided into two groups: (1) those with excess trench sediments, and (2) those with horst and graben structure at the trench. Thirteen of the 19 largest subduction zone events, including the three largest, occur in zones with excess trench sediments. About half the zones with excess trench sediments are characterized by great earthquake occurrence. Most of the other zones with excess trench sediments but without great earthquakes are predicted to have small earthquakes by the age-rate correlation. Two notable exceptions are the Oregon-Washington and Middle America zones. Overall, the presence of excess trench sediments appears to enhance great earthquake occurrence. One speculative physical mechanism that connects trench sediments and earthquake size is that excess trench sediments are associated with the subduction of a coherent sedimentary layer, which at elevated temperature and pressure, forms a homogeneous and strong contact zone between the plates.

Key words

Subduction zonesgreat earthquakestrench sediments

Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Larry J. Ruff
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Geological SciencesUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA