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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences


Publication details for Prof Stefan Nielsen

Murphy, S., Di Toro, G., Romano, F., Scala, A., Lorito, S., Spagnuolo, E., Aretusini, S., Festa, G., Piatanesi, A. & Nielsen, S. (2018). Tsunamigenic earthquake simulations using experimentally derived friction laws. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 486: 155-165.

Author(s) from Durham


Seismological, tsunami and geodetic observations have shown that subduction zones are complex systems where the properties of earthquake rupture vary with depth as a result of different pre-stress and frictional conditions. A wealth of earthquakes of different sizes and different source features (e.g. rupture duration) can be generated in subduction zones, including tsunami earthquakes, some of which can produce extreme tsunamigenic events. Here, we offer a geological perspective principally accounting for depth-dependent frictional conditions, while adopting a simplified distribution of on-fault tectonic pre-stress.

We combine a lithology-controlled, depth-dependent experimental friction law with 2D elastodynamic rupture simulations for a Tohoku-like subduction zone cross-section. Subduction zone fault rocks are dominantly incohesive and clay-rich near the surface, transitioning to cohesive and more crystalline at depth. By randomly shifting along fault dip the location of the high shear stress regions (“asperities”), moderate to great thrust earthquakes and tsunami earthquakes are produced that are quite consistent with seismological, geodetic, and tsunami observations. As an effect of depth-dependent friction in our model, slip is confined to the high stress asperity at depth; near the surface rupture is impeded by the rock-clay transition constraining slip to the clay-rich layer. However, when the high stress asperity is located in the clay-to-crystalline rock transition, great thrust earthquakes can be generated similar to the Mw 9 Tohoku (2011) earthquake.