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Nature. 2017 May 18;545(7654):336-339. doi: 10.1038/nature22045. Epub 2017 May 1.

Experimental evidence that thrust earthquake ruptures might open faults.

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Graduate Aerospace Laboratories, California Institute of Technology, 1200 East California Boulevard 105-50, Pasadena, California 91105, USA.
Laboratoire de Géologie, École Normale Supérieure, CNRS-UMR 8538, PSL Research University, Paris 75005, France.
Seismological Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 1200 East California Boulevard 252-21, Pasadena, California 91105, USA.


Many of Earth's great earthquakes occur on thrust faults. These earthquakes predominantly occur within subduction zones, such as the 2011 moment magnitude 9.0 eathquake in Tohoku-Oki, Japan, or along large collision zones, such as the 1999 moment magnitude 7.7 earthquake in Chi-Chi, Taiwan. Notably, these two earthquakes had a maximum slip that was very close to the surface. This contributed to the destructive tsunami that occurred during the Tohoku-Oki event and to the large amount of structural damage caused by the Chi-Chi event. The mechanism that results in such large slip near the surface is poorly understood as shallow parts of thrust faults are considered to be frictionally stable. Here we use earthquake rupture experiments to reveal the existence of a torquing mechanism of thrust fault ruptures near the free surface that causes them to unclamp and slip large distances. Complementary numerical modelling of the experiments confirms that the hanging-wall wedge undergoes pronounced rotation in one direction as the earthquake rupture approaches the free surface, and this torque is released as soon as the rupture breaks the free surface, resulting in the unclamping and violent 'flapping' of the hanging-wall wedge. Our results imply that the shallow extent of the seismogenic zone of a subducting interface is not fixed and can extend up to the trench during great earthquakes through a torquing mechanism.


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