Seismic variability of subduction thrust faults: Insights from laboratory models



[1] Laboratory models are realized to investigate the role of interface roughness, driving rate, and pressure on friction dynamics. The setup consists of a gelatin block driven at constant velocity over sand paper. The interface roughness is quantified in terms of amplitude and wavelength of protrusions, jointly expressed by a reference roughness parameter obtained by their product. Frictional behavior shows a systematic dependence on system parameters. Both stick slip and stable sliding occur, depending on driving rate and interface roughness. Stress drop and frequency of slip episodes vary directly and inversely, respectively, with the reference roughness parameter, reflecting the fundamental role for the amplitude of protrusions. An increase in pressure tends to favor stick slip. Static friction is a steeply decreasing function of the reference roughness parameter. The velocity strengthening/weakening parameter in the state- and rate-dependent dynamic friction law becomes negative for specific values of the reference roughness parameter which are intermediate with respect to the explored range. Despite the simplifications of the adopted setup, which does not address the problem of off-fault fracturing, a comparison of the experimental results with the depth distribution of seismic energy release along subduction thrust faults leads to the hypothesis that their behavior is primarily controlled by the depth- and time-dependent distribution of protrusions. A rough subduction fault at shallow depths, unable to produce significant seismicity because of low lithostatic pressure, evolves into a moderately rough, velocity-weakening fault at intermediate depths. The magnitude of events in this range is calibrated by the interplay between surface roughness and subduction rate. At larger depths, the roughness further decreases and stable sliding becomes gradually more predominant. Thus, although interplate seismicity is ultimately controlled by tectonic parameters (velocity of the plates/trench and the thermal regime), the direct control is exercised by the resulting frictional properties of the plate interface.