Structural and thermal control of seismic activity and megathrust rupture dynamics in subduction zones: Lessons from the Mw 9.0, 2011 Tohoku earthquake

Claudio Satriano, Viviana Dionicio, Hiroe Miyake, Naoki Uchida, Jean Pierre Vilotte, Pascal Bernard

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23 Citations (Scopus)


The 2011 Tohoku megathrust earthquake ruptured a vast region of the northeast Japan Trench subduction zone in a way that had not been enough anticipated by earthquake and tsunami risk scenarios. We analyzed the Tohoku rupture combining high-frequency back-projection analysis with low frequency kinematic inversion of the co-seismic slip. Results support the to-day well-accepted broadband characteristics of this earthquake. Most of the seismic moment is released during the first 100 s, with large co-seismic slip (up to 55 m) offshore Miyagi in a compact region on the landward side of the trench. Coherent high-frequency radiation areas and relatively low co-seismic slip are a distinctive signature of the slab-mantle interface. The broadband characteristics of the Tohoku rupture are interpreted, integrating the seismic activity and structure information on the NE Japan forearc region, as a signature of along-dip segmentation and segment interactions, that result from thermal structure, plate geometry, material composition and fracture heterogeneities along the plate boundary interface. Deep mantle corner flow and low dehydration rates along the cold subduction slab interface lead to an extended seismogenic slab-mantle interface, with strong bi-material contrast controlling larger propagation distance in the downdip preferred rupture direction. Off Miyagi, plate bending below the mantle wedge, ~142.3°E at ~25 km depth, is associated with the eastern limit of the deep M7-8-class thrust-earthquakes, and of the strongest coherent high-frequency generation areas. The region of the slab-crust interface between the mantle wedge limit, ~142.7°E at ~20 km depth, and a trenchward plate bending, ~143.2°E at ~15 km, acted as an effective barrier resisting for many centuries to stress-loading gradient induced by deep stable sliding and large earthquakes along the slab-mantle interface. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake, whose hypocenter is located on the east side of the mantle wedge limit, released the accumulated stress in this region and succeeded to overcome the plate bending, driving the upper plate boundary interface to slip co-seismically, regardless its frictional property, thanks to a combination of dynamic effects associated with bi-material rupture directivity and stress changes induced by reflection from the surface of waves released by the unstable slip. This conceptual framework provides elements for reappraisal of long-term seismic activity and occurrence of rare and extreme tsunamigenic megathrust in other subduction zones, like those of North-Central Lesser Antilles, Central and Northern Chile.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-298
Number of pages12
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Publication statusPublished - 2014 Oct 1


  • 2011 Tohoku earthquake
  • Earthquake rupture
  • Seismic cycle
  • Subduction


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