Major Earthquakes Occur Regularly on an Isolated Plate Boundary Fault

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Science  29 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6089, pp. 1690-1693
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218959

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The Sedimentary Life of Earthquakes

Estimating the hazards associated with possible large earthquakes depends largely on evidence of prior seismic activity. The relatively new global seismic networks installed to monitor earthquakes, however, have only captured the very recent history of fault zones that can remain active for thousands of years. To understand the recurrence of large earthquakes along the Alpine Fault in New Zealand, Berryman et al. (p. 1690) looked to the sediments near an old creek for evidence of surface ruptures and vertical offset. Along this fault segment, 24 large earthquakes seem to have occurred over the last 6000 years, resulting in a recurrence interval of ∼329 years. The activity is more regular than other similar strike-slip faults, such as the San Andreas Fault in California.


The scarcity of long geological records of major earthquakes, on different types of faults, makes testing hypotheses of regular versus random or clustered earthquake recurrence behavior difficult. We provide a fault-proximal major earthquake record spanning 8000 years on the strike-slip Alpine Fault in New Zealand. Cyclic stratigraphy at Hokuri Creek suggests that the fault ruptured to the surface 24 times, and event ages yield a 0.33 coefficient of variation in recurrence interval. We associate this near-regular earthquake recurrence with a geometrically simple strike-slip fault, with high slip rate, accommodating a high proportion of plate boundary motion that works in isolation from other faults. We propose that it is valid to apply time-dependent earthquake recurrence models for seismic hazard estimation to similar faults worldwide.

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