Contrasting Décollement and Prism Properties over the Sumatra 2004–2005 Earthquake Rupture Boundary

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Science  09 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5988, pp. 207-210
DOI: 10.1126/science.1189373

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Quake Control

Large earthquakes occur at the margins of two colliding plates, where one plate subducts beneath the other at a shallow angle. These megathrust earthquakes often cause destructive tsunamis owing to the displacement of large volumes of water at the fault along the plate boundary. Two related studies of the seismic structure of subduction zones attempt to reveal the underlying mechanisms of megathrust earthquakes (see the Perspective by Wang). Kimura et al. (p. 210) compared seismic reflection images and microearthquake locations at the Philippine Sea plate where it subducts obliquely beneath Japan. The locations of repeating microearthquakes correspond to active transfer of material from the subducting plate to the continent—a process only previously assumed from exhumed metamorphic rocks. Dean et al. (p. 207) observe an expansive structure in the sea-floor sediment near the location of the 2004 and 2005 Sumatra earthquakes in Indonesia that suggests sediment properties may influence the magnitude of megathrust ruptures and their subsequent tsunamis.


Styles of subduction zone deformation and earthquake rupture dynamics are strongly linked, jointly influencing hazard potential. Seismic reflection profiles across the trench west of Sumatra, Indonesia, show differences across the boundary between the major 2004 and 2005 plate interface earthquakes, which exhibited contrasting earthquake rupture and tsunami generation. In the southern part of the 2004 rupture, we interpret a negative-polarity sedimentary reflector ~500 meters above the subducting oceanic basement as the seaward extension of the plate interface. This predécollement reflector corresponds to unusual prism structure, morphology, and seismogenic behavior that are absent along the 2005 rupture zone. Although margins like the 2004 rupture zone are globally rare, our results suggest that sediment properties influence earthquake rupture, tsunami hazard, and prism development at subducting plate boundaries.

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