An extraordinary number of earthquakes of M4.5 and greater were triggered worldwide in the six days after the M8.6 East Indian Ocean earthquake in April 2012. These large and potentially damaging quakes, occurring as far away as Mexico and Japan, were triggered within days of the passage of seismic waves from the main shock that generated stresses in Earth’s crust.
The East Indian Ocean event was the largest — by a factor of 10 — strike-slip earthquake ever recorded (the San Andreas is perhaps the most famous strike-slip fault). “Most great earthquakes occur along subduction zones and involve large vertical motions. No other recorded earthquake triggered as many large earthquakes elsewhere around the world as this one,” said Pollitz, “probably because strike-slip faults around the globe were more responsive to the seismic waves produced by a giant strike-slip temblor.”
In a study published in this week’s issue of “Nature,” USGS seismologist Fred Pollitz and colleagues analyzed the unprecedented increase in global seismic activity triggered by the Magnitude-8.6 East Indian Ocean quake of April 11, 2012, and in a recently published study in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” seismologist Volkan Sevilgen and his USGS colleagues investigated the near-cessation of seismic activity up to 250 miles away caused by the 2004 M9.2 Sumatra earthquake.
While aftershocks have traditionally been defined as those smaller earthquakes that happen after and nearby the main fault rupture, scientists now recognize that this definition is wrong. Instead, aftershocks are simply earthquakes of any size and location that would not have taken place had the main shock not struck.
Incorporating the probability of aftershocks into the hazard assessment of an area is important because the damage of even a moderate aftershock sometimes exceeds that wrought by the main event. For example, a M6.3 aftershock five months after the M7.1 New Zealand earthquake in 2010 hit a more populated area, causing 181 deaths and tripling the insured property damage of the main event.
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