Tectonic Aspects of the Guatemala Earthquake of 4 February 1976

Science  24 Sep 1976:
Vol. 193, Issue 4259, pp. 1201-1208
DOI: 10.1126/science.193.4259.1201


The locations of surface ruptures and the main shock epicenter indicate that the disastrous Guatemala earthquake of 4 February 1976 was tectonic in origin and generated mainly by slip on the Motagua fault, which has an arcuate roughly east-west trend across central Guatemala. Fault breakage was observed for 230 km. Displacement is predominantly horizontal and sinistral with a maximum measured offset of 340 cm and an average of about 100 cm. Secondary fault breaks trending roughly north-northeast to south-southwest have been found in a zone about 20 km long and 8 km wide extending from the western suburbs of Guatemala City to near Mixco, and similar faults with more subtle surface expression probably occur elsewhere in the Guatemalan Highlands. Displacements on the secondary faults are predominantly extensional and dip-slip, with as much as 15 cm vertical offset on a single fracture.

The primary fault that broke during the earthquake involved roughly 10 percent of the length of the great transform fault system that defines the boundary between the Caribbean and North American plates. The observed sinistral displacement is striking confirmation of deductions regarding the late Cenozoic relative motion between these two crustal plates that were based largely on indirect geologic and geophysical evidence. The earthquake-related secondary faulting, together with the complex pattern of geologically young normal faults that occur in the Guatemalan Highlands and elsewhere in western Central America, suggest that the eastern wedge-shaped part of the Caribbean plate, roughly between the Motagua fault system and the volcanic arc, is being pulled apart in tension and left behind as the main mass of the plate moves relatively eastward.

Because of their proximity to areas of high population density, shallow-focus earthquakes that originate on the Motagua fault system, on the system of predominantly extensional faults within the western part of the Caribbean plate, and in association with volcanism may pose a more serious seismic hazard than the more numerous (but generally more distant) earthquakes that are generated in the eastward-dipping subduction zone beneath Middle America.

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