Project Details


The possible segmentation of subduction zone faults currently presents one of the most significant questions to the physics and geology of earthquake occurrence and the assessment of future earthquake hazards. How will future large earthquakes be arrayed along a fault? How and why will individual earthquake ruptures stop? Subduction zone faults form the tectonic plate boundaries that parallel the coastlines of many countries around the world. Advances in instrumentation and modeling in recent decades have produced important insights into fault behavior, yet these measurements span only fractions of the time interval between major earthquakes. The goal of this research project is to use an interdisciplinary array of evidence preserved in coastal landforms and sediments to investigate whether segmentation of subduction zone faults is maintained over multiple earthquake cycles spanning hundreds to thousands of years. The field are, the Arauco Peninsula coast of south-central Chile, crosses the boundary between the rupture zones of two of the largest subduction zone earthquakes in the worldwide historic record, on May 22, 1960 (Mw 9.5) and February 27, 2010 (Mw 8.8). Prior to 2010, the study area for this project in south-central Chile was one of the most accepted hard fault segment boundaries along the Peru-Chile trench; it was believed to bound several historical ruptures, including the Great Chilean earthquake of 1960. The Chilean earthquake in February 2010 called this hypothesis into question, when the rupture extended south of this boundary and only partially overlapped with the previous earthquake in AD 1835. The combination of geological evidence of past earthquakes over the last 4000 years, frequent large subduction zone earthquakes, and an unusually long and comprehensive historic record of earthquakes in south-central Chile makes this region a natural laboratory to address fundamental questions about fault segmentation. This research project will test multiple hypotheses regarding earthquake behavior and coastal response: (1) fault ruptures over multiple earthquake cycles could terminate at fixed (hard), variable (soft), or random boundaries, or could include multiple segments; (2) large subduction zone earthquakes will produce a tsunami deposit simultaneous with an abrupt change in land level; and (3) the Holocene coastal evolution in this region reflects a modest net change in relative sea level in which the vertical uplift or subsidence during large earthquakes is largely reversed during the periods between earthquakes. To address these hypotheses the research team will reconstruct vertical land-level changes and tsunami history associated with multiple earthquake cycles using geomorphic, sedimentological and microfossil analysis. They will characterize the optimal environmental settings for the preservation of land-level changes and tsunami deposits in sedimentary sequences and analyze the impacts of these land-level changes on the coastal landscape.Ruptures on subduction zone faults have created some of the largest earthquakes and tsunamis in the world, such as the catastrophic earthquake in Japan in 2011 that killed thousands of people and destroyed coastal cities. The practical importance of this investigation for assessing future earthquake hazards in other similar geological settings was underscored by the unforeseen extent of fault ruptures and resulting earthquake magnitudes in the recent devastating earthquakes in Sumatra in 2004, Chile in 2010 and Japan in 2011. The project will build on strong existing collaboration with Chilean scientists. The results will inform the construction of earthquake and tsunami risk maps through established contacts in Chile, and we will arrange public presentations on earthquake and tsunami hazards. The general concepts will advance knowledge of earthquake behavior over time periods that exceed the relatively short period of the instrumental record.This project is supported by the Tectonics Program and Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics Program in the Division of Earth Sciences and the Office of International Science and Engineering.
Effective start/end date8/1/132/28/15


  • National Science Foundation (National Science Foundation (NSF))

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