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What drives aftershocks?

December 1, 2013
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
High-resolution GPS signals provide new insights into the mechanisms of stress transfer in subduction zones. Silent creeping turns out to be an important factor.

Setting up a Creepmeter Station in Southern Central Chile.
Credit: GFZ

On 27 February 2010 an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 struck South-Central Chile near the town of Maule. The main shock displaced the subduction interface by up to 16 meters. Like usually after strong earthquakes a series of aftershocks occurred in the region with decreasing size over the next months. A surprising result came from an afterslip study: Up to 2 meters additional slip occurred along the plate interface within 420 days only, in a pulse like fashion and without associated seismicity. An international research group lead by GFZ analysed the main shock as well as the following postseismic phase with a dense network of instruments including more than 60 high-resolution GPS stations.

The aftershocks and the now found "silent" afterslip are key to understand the processes occurring after strong earthquakes. The GPS data in combination with seismological data allowed for the first time a comparative analysis: Are aftershocks triggered solely by stress transfer from the main shock or are additional mechanisms active? "Our results suggest, that the classic view of the stress relaxation due to aftershocks are too simple" says Jonathan Bedford from GFZ to the new observation: "Areas with large stress transfer do not correlate with aftershocks in all magnitude classes as hitherto assumed and stress shadows show surprisingly high seismic activity."

A conclusion is that local processes which are not detectable at the surface by GPS monitoring along the plate interface have a significant effect on the local stress field. Pressurized fluids in the crust and mantle could be the agent here. As suspected previously, the main and aftershocks might have generated permeabilities in the source region which are explored by hydrous fluids. This effects the local stress field triggering aftershocks rather independently from the large scale, main shock induced stress transfer. The present study provides evidences for such a mechanism. Volume (3D) seismic tomography which is sensitive to fluid pressure changes in combination with GPS monitoring will allow to better monitor the evolution of such processes.

The main shock was due to a rupture of the interface between the Nasca and the South American plates. Aftershocks are associated with hazards as they can be of similar size as the main shock and, in contrast to the latter, much shallower in the crust.

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Materials provided by Helmholtz Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jonathan Bedford, Marcos Moreno, Juan Carlos Baez, Dietrich Lange, Frederik Tilmann, Matthias Rosenau, Oliver Heidbach, Onno Oncken, Mitja Bartsch, Andreas Rietbrock, Andrés Tassara, Michael Bevis, Christophe Vigny. A high-resolution, time-variable afterslip model for the 2010 Maule Mw = 8.8, Chile megathrust earthquake. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 2013; 383: 26 DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2013.09.020

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Helmholtz Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. "What drives aftershocks?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 December 2013. <>.
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. (2013, December 1). What drives aftershocks?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 26, 2017 from
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. "What drives aftershocks?." ScienceDaily. (accessed March 26, 2017).