Tectonic controls on earthquake size distribution and seismicity rate: slab buoyancy and slab bending

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 11:05 AM
Tomoaki Nishikawa and Satoshi Ide, University of Tokyo, Bunkyo-ku, Japan
There are clear variations in maximum earthquake magnitude among Earth’s subduction zones. These variations have been studied extensively and attributed to differences in tectonic properties in subduction zones, such as relative plate velocity and subducting plate age [Ruff and Kanamori, 1980]. In addition to maximum earthquake magnitude, the seismicity of medium to large earthquakes also differs among subduction zones, such as the b-value (i.e., the slope of the earthquake size distribution) and the frequency of seismic events. However, the casual relationship between the seismicity of medium to large earthquakes and subduction zone tectonics has been unclear. Here we divide Earth’s subduction zones into over 100 study regions following Ide [2013] and estimate b-values and the background seismicity rate—the frequency of seismic events excluding aftershocks—for subduction zones worldwide using the maximum likelihood method [Utsu, 1965; Aki, 1965] and the epidemic type aftershock sequence (ETAS) model [Ogata, 1988]. We demonstrate that the b-value varies as a function of subducting plate age and trench depth, and that the background seismicity rate is related to the degree of slab bending at the trench. Large earthquakes tend to occur relatively frequently (lower b-values) in shallower subduction zones with younger slabs, and more earthquakes occur in subduction zones with deeper trench and steeper dip angle. These results suggest that slab buoyancy, which depends on subducting plate age, controls the earthquake size distribution, and that intra-slab faults due to slab bending, which increase with the steepness of the slab dip angle, have influence on the frequency of seismic events, because they produce heterogeneity in plate coupling and efficiently inject fluid to elevate pore fluid pressure on the plate interface. This study reveals tectonic factors that control earthquake size distribution and seismicity rate, and these relationships between seismicity and tectonic properties may be useful for seismic risk assessment.