Intermittent Granular Dynamics at a Seismogenic Plate Boundary

Yasmine Meroz, Brendan J. Meade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Earthquakes at seismogenic plate boundaries are a response to the differential motions of tectonic blocks embedded within a geometrically complex network of branching and coalescing faults. Elastic strain is accumulated at a slow strain rate on the order of 10-15 s-1, and released intermittently at intervals >100 yr, in the form of rapid (seconds to minutes) coseismic ruptures. The development of macroscopic models of quasistatic planar tectonic dynamics at these plate boundaries has remained challenging due to uncertainty with regard to the spatial and kinematic complexity of fault system behaviors. The characteristic length scale of kinematically distinct tectonic structures is particularly poorly constrained. Here, we analyze fluctuations in Global Positioning System observations of interseismic motion from the southern California plate boundary, identifying heavy-tailed scaling behavior. Namely, we show that, consistent with findings for slowly sheared granular media, the distribution of velocity fluctuations deviates from a Gaussian, exhibiting broad tails, and the correlation function decays as a stretched exponential. This suggests that the plate boundary can be understood as a densely packed granular medium, predicting a characteristic tectonic length scale of 91±20 km, here representing the characteristic size of tectonic blocks in the southern California fault network, and relating the characteristic duration and recurrence interval of earthquakes, with the observed sheared strain rate, and the nanosecond value for the crack tip evolution time scale. Within a granular description, fault and blocks systems may rapidly rearrange the distribution of forces within them, driving a mixture of transient and intermittent fault slip behaviors over tectonic time scales.

Original languageEnglish
Article number138501
JournalPhysical Review Letters
Issue number13
StatePublished - 26 Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes


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