Strength of Megathrust Faults: Insights from the 2011 M=9 Tohoku-oki Earthquake




Brown, Lonn

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The state of stress in forearc regions depends on the balance of two competing factors: the plate coupling force that generates margin-normal compression, and the gravitational force, that generates margin-normal tension. Widespread reversal of the focal mechanisms of small earthquakes after the 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake indicate a reversal in the dominant state of stress of the forearc, from compressive before the earthquake to tensional afterwards. This implies that the plate coupling force dominated before the earthquake, and that the coseismic weakening of the fault lowered the amount of stress exerted on the forearc, such that the gravitational force became dominant in the post-seismic period. This change requires that the average stress drop along the fault represents a significant portion of the fault strength. Two cases are possible: (1) The fault was strong and the stress drop was large or nearly-complete (e.g. from 50 MPa to 10 MPa), or (2) that the fault was weak and the stress drop was small (e.g. from 15 MPa to 10 MPa). The first option appears to be consistent with the dramatic weakening associated with high-rate rock friction experiments, while the second option is consistent with seismological observations that large earthquakes are characterized by low average stress drops. In this work, we demonstrate that the second option is correct. A very weak fault, represented by an apparent coefficient of friction of 0.032, is sufficient to put the Japan Trench forearc into margin-normal compression. Lowering this value by ~0.01 causes the reversal of the state of stress as observed after the earthquake. A slightly stronger fault, with a strength of 0.045, does not agree well with the observed spatial extent of normal faulting for the same coseismic reduction in strength. We also calculate distributions of stress change on the fault and average stress drop values for the Tohoku-oki earthquake, as predicted from 20 published rupture models which were constrained by seismic, tsunami, and geodetic data. Our results reconcile seismic observations that average stress drops for large megathrust events are low with laboratory work on high-rate weakening that predicts very high or complete stress drop. We find that, in all rupture models, regions of high stress drop (20 – 55 MPa) are probably indicative of dynamic weakening during seismic slip, but that the heterogeneous nature of fault slip does not allow these regions to become widespread. Also, coseismic stress increase on the fault occurs in many parts of the fault, including parts of the area that experienced high slip (> 30 m). These two factors ensure that the average stress drop remains low (< 5 MPa). The low average stress drop during the Tohoku earthquake, consistent with values reported for other large earthquakes, makes it unambiguous that the Japan Trench megathrust is very weak.



megathrust, fault strength, stress drop, Japan Trench, weak fault, forearc, stress reversal, fragile state of stress, stress switching, average stress drop, heterogeneous stress change, Northeast Japan