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From Sub-Rayleigh to Supershear Ruptures During Stick-Slip Experiments on Crustal Rocks

Science  07 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6137, pp. 1208-1211
DOI: 10.1126/science.1235637

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Sonic Boom from Below

Seismic shear waves released by an earthquake typically far outpace motion along the fault surface. Occasionally, however, earthquakes along strike-slip faults appear to propagate so that the rupture velocity is faster than shear waves, creating a sort of sonic boom along the fault surface. Passelègue et al. (p. 1208) were able to reproduce and measure these so-called supershear ruptures in stick-slip experiments with two pieces of granite under high applied normal stress. Much like during a sonic boom when a plane travels faster than the speed of sound, the ruptures created a shock wave in the form of a Mach cone around the rupture front.

Abstract

Supershear earthquake ruptures propagate faster than the shear wave velocity. Although there is evidence that this occurs in nature, it has not been experimentally demonstrated with the use of crustal rocks. We performed stick-slip experiments with Westerly granite under controlled upper-crustal stress conditions. Supershear ruptures systematically occur when the normal stress exceeds 43 megapascals (MPa) with resulting stress drops on the order of 3 to 25 MPa, comparable to the stress drops inferred by seismology for crustal earthquakes. In our experiments, the sub-Rayleigh–to–supershear transition length is a few centimeters at most, suggesting that the rupture of asperities along a fault may propagate locally at supershear velocities. In turn, these sudden accelerations and decelerations could play an important role in the generation of high-frequency radiation and the overall rupture-energy budget.

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