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Earthquakes of the Nepal Himalaya : Towards a Physical Model of the Seismic Cycle


Ader, Thomas Joachim (2013) Earthquakes of the Nepal Himalaya : Towards a Physical Model of the Seismic Cycle. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/z9c8276q.


Home to hundreds of millions of souls and land of excessiveness, the Himalaya is also the locus of a unique seismicity whose scope and peculiarities still remain to this day somewhat mysterious. Having claimed the lives of kings, or turned ancient timeworn cities into heaps of rubbles and ruins, earthquakes eerily inhabit Nepalese folk tales with the fatalistic message that nothing lasts forever. From a scientific point of view as much as from a human perspective, solving the mysteries of Himalayan seismicity thus represents a challenge of prime importance. Documenting geodetic strain across the Nepal Himalaya with various GPS and leveling data, we show that unlike other subduction zones that exhibit a heterogeneous and patchy coupling pattern along strike, the last hundred kilometers of the Main Himalayan Thrust fault, or MHT, appear to be uniformly locked, devoid of any of the “creeping barriers” that traditionally ward off the propagation of large events. The approximately 20 mm/yr of reckoned convergence across the Himalaya matching previously established estimates of the secular deformation at the front of the arc, the slip accumulated at depth has to somehow elastically propagate all the way to the surface at some point. And yet, neither large events from the past nor currently recorded microseismicity nearly compensate for the massive moment deficit that quietly builds up under the giant mountains. Along with this large unbalanced moment deficit, the uncommonly homogeneous coupling pattern on the MHT raises the question of whether or not the locked portion of the MHT can rupture all at once in a giant earthquake. Univocally answering this question appears contingent on the still elusive estimate of the magnitude of the largest possible earthquake in the Himalaya, and requires tight constraints on local fault properties. What makes the Himalaya enigmatic also makes it the potential source of an incredible wealth of information, and we exploit some of the oddities of Himalayan seismicity in an effort to improve the understanding of earthquake physics and cipher out the properties of the MHT. Thanks to the Himalaya, the Indo-Gangetic plain is deluged each year under a tremendous amount of water during the annual summer monsoon that collects and bears down on the Indian plate enough to pull it away from the Eurasian plate slightly, temporarily relieving a small portion of the stress mounting on the MHT. As the rainwater evaporates in the dry winter season, the plate rebounds and tension is increased back on the fault. Interestingly, the mild waggle of stress induced by the monsoon rains is about the same size as that from solid-Earth tides which gently tug at the planets solid layers, but whereas changes in earthquake frequency correspond with the annually occurring monsoon, there is no such correlation with Earth tides, which oscillate back-and-forth twice a day. We therefore investigate the general response of the creeping and seismogenic parts of MHT to periodic stresses in order to link these observations to physical parameters. First, the response of the creeping part of the MHT is analyzed with a simple spring-and-slider system bearing rate-strengthening rheology, and we show that at the transition with the locked zone, where the friction becomes near velocity neutral, the response of the slip rate may be amplified at some periods, which values are analytically related to the physical parameters of the problem. Such predictions therefore hold the potential of constraining fault properties on the MHT, but still await observational counterparts to be applied, as nothing indicates that the variations of seismicity rate on the locked part of the MHT are the direct expressions of variations of the slip rate on its creeping part, and no variations of the slip rate have been singled out from the GPS measurements to this day. When shifting to the locked seismogenic part of the MHT, spring-and-slider models with rate-weakening rheology are insufficient to explain the contrasted responses of the seismicity to the periodic loads that tides and monsoon both place on the MHT. Instead, we resort to numerical simulations using the Boundary Integral CYCLes of Earthquakes algorithm and examine the response of a 2D finite fault embedded with a rate-weakening patch to harmonic stress perturbations of various periods. We show that such simulations are able to reproduce results consistent with a gradual amplification of sensitivity as the perturbing period get larger, up to a critical period corresponding to the characteristic time of evolution of the seismicity in response to a step-like perturbation of stress. This increase of sensitivity was not reproduced by simple 1D-spring-slider systems, probably because of the complexity of the nucleation process, reproduced only by 2D-fault models. When the nucleation zone is close to its critical unstable size, its growth becomes highly sensitive to any external perturbations and the timings of produced events may therefore find themselves highly affected. A fully analytical framework has yet to be developed and further work is needed to fully describe the behavior of the fault in terms of physical parameters, which will likely provide the keys to deduce constitutive properties of the MHT from seismological observations.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Himalayan seismicity; Nepal; seasonal variations; dynamic simulations; earthquake cycle
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Geophysics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Avouac, Jean-Philippe
Thesis Committee:
  • Simons, Mark (chair)
  • Lapusta, Nadia
  • Ampuero, Jean-Paul
  • Avouac, Jean-Philippe
Defense Date:21 May 2013
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06032013-180145987
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7828
Deposited By: Thomas Ader
Deposited On:06 Jun 2013 23:43
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:01

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