Fault Trace Complexity, Cumulative Slip, and the Shape of the Magnitude-Frequence Distribution for Strike-Slip Faults: A Global Study

Mark W. Stirling, Steven G. Wesnousky, & Kunihiko Shimazaki

Published March 1996, SCEC Contribution #206

We examine whether the shape of the magnitude-frequency distribution for strike-slip faults is described by the Gutenburg-Richter relationship (log n = a - bM) or by the characteristic earthquake model, by analysing a data set of faults from California. Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, China and Turkey. For faults within regional seismic networks, curves of the form log n yr-1 = a - bM, where n yr-1 is the number of events per year equal to magnitude M, are fit to the instrumental record of seismicity and geological data are used to estimate independently the size and recurrence rate of the largest expected earthquakes that would rupture the total length of the fault. Extrapolation of instrumentally derived curves to larger magnitudes agrees with geological estimates of the recurrence rate of the largest earthquakes for only four of the 22 faults if uncertainties in curve slope are considered, and significantly underestimates the geological recurrence rates in the remaining cases. Also, if we predict the seismicity of the faults as a function of fault length and slip rate, and the predicted seismicity is distributed in accord with the Gutenburg-Richter relationship, we find the predicted recurrence rate to be greater than the observed recurrence rates of smaller earthquakes along most faults. If individual fault zones satisfy the Gutenburg-Richter relationship over the long term, our observations imply that, during the recurrence interval of the largest expected earthquakes, the recurrence of lesser-sized events is not steady but, rather, strongly clustered in time. However, if the instrumental records provide an estimate of the long-term rate of small to moderate earthquakes along the faults, our observations imply that the faults generally exhibit a magnitude-frequency distribution consistent with the characteristic earthquake model. Aiso, we observe that the geometrical complexity of strike-slip faults is a decreasing function of cumulative strike-slip offset. The four faults we observe to be consistent with the Gutenburg-Richter relationship are among those characterized by the least amount of cumulative slip and greatest fault-trace complexity. We therefore suggest that the ratio of the recurrence rate of small to large earthquakes along a fault zone may decrease as slip accumulates and the fault becomes smoother.

Stirling, M. W., Wesnousky, S. G., & Shimazaki, K. (1996). Fault Trace Complexity, Cumulative Slip, and the Shape of the Magnitude-Frequence Distribution for Strike-Slip Faults: A Global Study. Geophysical Journal International, 124(3), 833-868. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-246X.1996.tb05641.x.