Research ArticleGEOPHYSICS

Characterizing large earthquakes before rupture is complete

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Science Advances  29 May 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 5, eaav2032
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav2032


Whether earthquakes of different sizes are distinguishable early in their rupture process is a subject of debate. Studies have shown that the frequency content of radiated seismic energy in the first seconds of earthquakes scales with magnitude, implying determinism. Other studies have shown that recordings of ground displacement from small to moderate-sized earthquakes are indistinguishable, implying a universal early rupture process. Regardless of how earthquakes start, events of different sizes must be distinguishable at some point. If that difference occurs before the rupture duration of the smaller event, this implies some level of determinism. We show through analysis of a database of source time functions and near-source displacement records that, after an initiation phase, ruptures of M7 to M9 earthquakes organize into a slip pulse, the kinematic properties of which scale with magnitude. Hence, early in the rupture process—after about 10 s—large and very large earthquakes can be distinguished.

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