On 30 May 2015, a powerful earthquake struck west of Japan’s remote Ogasawara (Bonin) island chain, which lies more than 800 kilometers south of Tokyo. Although it caused little damage, the magnitude 7.9 quake was noteworthy for being the deepest major earthquake ever recorded—it occurred more than 100 kilometers below any previously observed seismicity along the subducting Pacific Plate—and the first earthquake felt in every Japanese prefecture since observations began in 1884.
The 680-kilometer-deep earthquake was also notable for its unusual ground motion. Instead of producing a band of high-frequency (>1 hertz) seismic waves concentrated along northern Japan’s east coast, as is typical for deep subduction-related earthquakes in this region, this event generated strong, low-frequency waves that jolted a broad area up to 2,000 kilometers from the epicenter. To explain this uncharacteristic wavefield, Furumura and Kennett analyzed ground motion records from across the country and compared the results to observations from a much shallower, magnitude 6.8 earthquake that occurred within the Pacific slab in the same area in 2010.
The results indicated that the peculiar ground motion associated with the 2015 earthquake was due to its great source depth as well as its location outside of the subducting slab. The team found that the ultradeep event was missing high-frequency components and generated milder ground motions at regional distances, whereas the 2010 earthquake included the high-frequency components but was narrowly focused.
After contrasting three-dimensional numerical simulations of seismic wave propagation from both events, the researchers concluded that waves originating from a deep source outside of the slab can develop a distinctive, low-frequency wavefield as they interact with continental crust and the region’s subducting slabs. Because this wavefield is usually concealed by higher-frequency, slab-guided waves, the few existing examples of this phenomenon will likely provide valuable information on local crustal structure and, in the case of the 2015 Ogasawara event, the morphology of the Pacific Plate. (Journal Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, https://doi.org/10.1002/2017JB014519, 2017)
—Terri Cook, Freelance Writer