Exciting news! We're transitioning to the Statewide California Earthquake Center. Our new website is under construction, but we'll continue using this website for SCEC business in the meantime. We're also archiving the Southern Center site to preserve its rich history. A new and improved platform is coming soon!

Evolving Towards a Critical Point: A Review of Accelerating Seismic Moment/Energy Release Prior to Large and Great Earthquakes

Steven Jaume, & Lynn Sykes

Published August 1999, SCEC Contribution #468

There is growing evidence that some proportion of large and great earthquakes are preceded by a period of accelerating seismic activity of moderate-sized earthquakes. These moderate earthquakes occur during the years to decades prior to the occurrence of the large or great event and over a region larger than its rupture zone. The size of the region in which these moderate earthquakes occur scales with the size of the ensuing mainshock, at least in continental regions. A number of numerical simulation studies of faults and fault systems also exhibit similar behavior. The combined observational and simulation evidence suggests that the period of increased moment release in moderate earthquakes signals the establishment of long wavelength correlations in the regional stress field. The central hypothesis in the critical point model for regional seismicity is that it is only during these time periods that a region of the earth’s crust is truly in or near a "self-organized critical" (SOC) state, such that small earthquakes are capable of cascading into much larger events. The occurrence of a large or great earthquake appears to dissipate a sufficient proportion of the accumulated regional strain to destroy these long wavelength stress correlations and bring the region out of a SOC state. Continued tectonic strain accumulation and stress transfer during smaller earthquakes eventually re-establishes the long wavelength stress correlations that allow for the occurrence of larger events. These increases in activity occur over longer periods and larger regions than quiescence, which is usually observed within the rupture zone of a coming large event. The two phenomena appear to have different physical bases and are not incompatible with one another.

Key Words
United States, numerical analysis, seismic moment, acceleration, magnitude, stress, critical points, simulation, California, rupture, San Francisco Bay, earthquake prediction, seismic energy, earthquakes

Jaume, S., & Sykes, L. (1999). Evolving Towards a Critical Point: A Review of Accelerating Seismic Moment/Energy Release Prior to Large and Great Earthquakes. Pure and Applied Geophysics, 155(2-4), 279-305. doi: 10.1007/s000240050266.