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Constraining Earthquake Source Processes Through Physics-Based Modeling


Lambert, Valère Régis Westbrooke (2021) Constraining Earthquake Source Processes Through Physics-Based Modeling. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/7s93-k485.


Determining principles and conditions governing motion along faults is crucial for assessing how earthquake ruptures start and how large they may ultimately become. This thesis aims to shed light on the physics governing earthquake source processes by (i) developing physics-based numerical models that combine geological observations and laboratory insight with theoretical developments, and (ii) using these models to examine how different physical mechanisms and conditions are reflected in a range of geophysical observations taken together, from heat-flow constraints and seismologically determined properties of earthquakes to geodetic inferences and earthquake frequency-magnitude statistics.

We examine the behavior and observable characteristics of numerically simulated sequences of earthquakes and aseismic slip in fault models designed to reproduce well-known features of mature faults that produce large destructive earthquakes. In part, the models are consistent with the inferred low-stress, low-heat operation of mature faults, which host large earthquakes at much lower levels of stress than their expected static strength. We explore two potential explanations for such behavior, one that faults are indeed quasi-statically strong but experience dramatic weakening during earthquakes, or that faults are persistently weak, e.g., due to fluid overpressure. We find that the two classes of fault models can, in principle, be distinguished based on the amount of seismic energy radiated from earthquake ruptures. Dynamic ruptures in the form of self-healing pulses, which occur on quasi-statically strong but dynamically weak faults, result in much larger radiated energy than inferred teleseismically for megathrust events, whereas crack-like ruptures on persistently weak faults are consistent with the seismological observations. The larger radiated energy of self-healing pulses is similar to limited regional inferences for crustal strike-slip faults. Our results suggest that re-evaluating estimates of radiated energy and static stress drop would provide substantial insight into the driving physics of large earthquakes and the absolute stress conditions on faults, with potential differences between tectonic settings.

The results also have significant implications for seismic hazard, since our modeling shows that fault models that experience efficient dynamic weakening during ruptures tend to predominantly produce large earthquakes, at the expense of smaller earthquakes. Such behavior is consistent with some mature fault segments, such as several segments of the San Andreas Fault in California that have hosted large earthquakes but are currently nearly seismically quiescent. These considerations can provide physical basis for improving earthquake early warning systems. If mature faults in California are indeed governed by enhanced dynamic weakening, then our results suggest that the likelihood of an earthquake on these faults becoming substantially larger is much higher than typical expectations based on Gutenberg-Richter statistics.

By considering average fault stress before simulated earthquake ruptures, we find that critical stress conditions for earthquake occurrence depend on the size and style of motion (e.g. the degree of slip acceleration at the rupture front) during individual ruptures. In particular, the stress conditions required to propagate large earthquake ruptures can be considerably lower than those required for rupture nucleation, and standard notions of quasi-static fault strength based on laboratory studies. Our results demonstrate that the critical stress for earthquake occurrence is not governed by a simple condition such as a certain level of Coloumb stress, as commonly used in studies of stress interactions among faults and earthquake aftershocks patterns. More robust criteria for critical stress conditions would depend on the strength evolution during dynamic rupture and can be explored in numerical simulations.

Finally, evaluating the predictive power of numerical earthquake models for future hazards is a topic of great importance for physics-based seismic hazard assessment. Towards that end, we investigate the sensitivity of outcomes from numerical simulations of sequences of earthquakes and aseismic slip, including the long-term interaction of fault segments, to choices in numerical discretization and treatment of inertial, wave-mediated effects. In particular, we find that the rate of earthquake ruptures that manage to jump between two fault segments, a parameter routinely used in seismic hazard studies, is highly sensitive to numerical and physical modeling choices. These results suggest the need for developing different parameterization of seismic hazard than currently used, a task for which numerical modeling is well-suited.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:earthquake source processes, fault stress, numerical simulations, sequences of earthquakes and aseismic slip, earthquake rupture style, enhanced dynamic weakening, thermal pressurization
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Geophysics
Minor Option:Mechanical Engineering
Awards:Demetriades-Tsafka-Kokkalis Prize in Seismo-Engineering, Prediction, and Protection, 2021.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Lapusta, Nadia
Group:Center for Geomechanics and Mitigation of Geohazards (GMG)
Thesis Committee:
  • Avouac, Jean-Philippe
  • Lapusta, Nadia
  • Simons, Mark (chair)
  • Zhan, Zhongwen
Defense Date:28 April 2021
Non-Caltech Author Email:valerelambert (AT)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
U. S. Geological Survey (USGS)G19AP00059
Southern California Earthquake Center18085,19085,20079
Southern California Earthquake Center18174,19086,20080
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05202021-190145895
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for ch. 2 adapted for ch. 3 2-3 present continuations of work in article 10.1038/s41586-021-03248-1DOIArticle adapted for ch. 4 10.1002/essoar.10506727.1DOIArticle adapted for ch. 6 adapted for ch. 7
Lambert, Valère Régis Westbrooke0000-0002-6174-9651
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:14168
Deposited By: Valere Lambert
Deposited On:21 May 2021 23:42
Last Modified:28 Oct 2022 20:08

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