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Quantitative estimates of interplate coupling inferred from outer rise earthquakes

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Interplate coupling plays an important role in the seismogenesis of great interplate earthquakes at subduction zones. The spatial and temporal variations of such coupling control the patterns of subduction zone seismicity. We calculate stresses in the outer rise based on a model of oceanic plate bending and coupling at the interplate contact, to quantitatively estimate the degree of interplate coupling for the Tonga, New Hebrides, Kurile, Kamchatka, and Marianas subduction zones. Depths and focal mechanisms of outer rise earthquakes are used to constrain the stress models. We perform waveform modeling of body waves from the GDSN network to obtain reliable focal depth estimates for 24 outer rise earthquakes. A propagator matrix technique is used to calculate outer rise stresses in a bending 2-D elastic plate floating on a weak mantle. The modeling of normal and tangential loads simulates the total vertical and shear forces acting on the subducting plate. We estimate the interplate coupling by searching for an optimal tangential load at the plate interface that causes the corresponding stress regime within the plate to best fit the earthquake mechanisms in depth and location.

We find the estimated mean tangential load\(\overline f _x\) over 125–200 km width ranging between 166 and 671 bars for Tonga, the New Hebrides, the Kuriles, and Kamchatka. This magnitude of the coupling stress is generally compatible with the predicted shear stress at the plate contact from thermal-mechanical plate models byMolnar andEngland (1990), andVan den Buekel andWortel (1988). The estimated tectonic coupling,F tc , is on the order of 1012–1013 N/m for all the subduction zones.F tc for Tonga and New Hebrides is about twice as high as in the Kurile and Kamchatka arcs. The corresponding earthquake coupling forceF ec appears to be 1–10% of the tectonic coupling from our estimates. There seems to be no definitive correlation of the degree of seismic coupling with the estimated tectonic coupling. We find that outer rise earthquakes in the Marianas can be modeled using zero tangential load.

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Liu, X., McNally, K.C. Quantitative estimates of interplate coupling inferred from outer rise earthquakes. PAGEOPH 140, 211–255 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00879406

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Key words

  • Interplate coupling
  • outer rise earthquakes
  • stress modeling
  • subduction zones