Long-Term Evolution of the Deviatoric Background Stress in the Focal Region of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake

  • Tian-Jue LiEmail author


On 11 March 2011, a giant interplate earthquake of magnitude Mw 9.1 struck Tohoku-Oki area in eastern Japan. The earthquake is acknowledged to have permanently altered the stress field in and around the focal region. To capture the temporal change of the overall stress field, I examined 1251 focal mechanisms, from the NIED MT catalog, that occurred before and after the Tohoku-Oki earthquake from January, 2006 to January, 2017 in the focal region near the subducting slab. The examined observations were grouped into six periods, and based on the selected NIED MT catalog, the stress regime in each period was obtained by using the damped stress tensor inversion method. Based on the temporal evolution of stress rotation, the corresponding deviatoric stress level was estimated using a simplified 2D model. Results of the 10-year seismic stress cycle show that several years before the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, the stress accumulation level seems to have experienced an acceleration process. Studies suggest that this increasingly critically stress state combined with the sufficiently reduced coupling rate off the Tohoku area finally resulted in the unprecedented megathrust event. The coseismic process was violent and released almost all of the deviatoric stress that presented before the main shock. The resultant stress state even reached frictional overshoot. Thus, the postseismic stress pattern in the source region was reshaped significantly, especially for the upper plate and updip portion of the lower plate. After the main shock near the rupture surface, a surprisingly rapid and high-level stress reloading occurred within several postseismic years. To reconcile the classical subduction zone earthquake generation cycle model, the event may be described as an instantaneously decoupled stress state between the upper and inner plates.


Tohoku-Oki earthquake stress rotation stress drop ratio seismic stress cycle 



I am very grateful to Roland Bürgmann and the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive comments that improved the manuscript. I am also very grateful to the guest editor Yehuda Ben-Zion and the Springer Nature Corrections team for their diligent work to facilitate the publication. In this study, I used the focal mechanisms from the NIED catalog (Kubo et al. 2002). I also used the damped stress tensor inversion method named SATSI (Hardebeck and Michael 2006). The topography data used in Fig. 1 comes from Etopo1 (Amante and Eakins 2009). The figures in this paper were prepared using GMT (Wessel and Smith 1998). This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 41474041).

Supplementary material

24_2019_2106_MOESM1_ESM.docx (3.8 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 3915 kb)


  1. Amante C., & Eakins, B. W. 2009. ETOPO1 1 Arc-Minute Global Relief Model: Procedures, data sources and analysis. National Geophysical Data Center.Google Scholar
  2. Angelier, J. (1979). Determination of the mean principal directions of stresses for a given fault population. Tectonophysics, 56, T17–T26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Asano, Y., Saito, T., Ito, Y., et al. (2011). Spatial distribution and focal mechanisms of aftershocks of the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake. Earth Planets and Space, 63, 669–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bürgmann, R., Uchida, N., Hu, Y., et al. (2016). Tohoku rupture reloaded? Nature Geoscience, 9(3), 183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chiba, K., Iio, Y., & Fukahata, Y. (2012). Detailed stress fields in the focal region of the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake—implication for the distribution of moment release. Earth Planets and Space, 64, 1157–1165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. DeMets, C., Gordon, R. G., Argus, D. F., et al. (1994). Effect of recent revisions to the geomagnetic reversal time scale on estimates of current plate motions. Geophysical Research Letters, 21(20), 2191–2194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Efron, B., & Tibshirani, R. (1986). Bootstrap methods for standard errors, confidence intervals, and other measures of statistical accuracy. Statistical Science, 1(1), 54–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Freed, A. M., Hashima, A., Becker, T. W., et al. (2017). Resolving depth-dependent subduction zone viscosity and afterslip from postseismic displacements following the 2011 Tohoku-oki, Japan earthquake. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 459, 279–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fukuyama, E., & Hok, S. (2015). Dynamic overshoot near trench caused by large asperity break at depth. Pure and Applied Geophysics, 172(8), 2157–2165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gephart, J. W., & Forsyth, D. W. (1984). An improved method for determining the regional stress tensor using earthquake focal mechanism data: Application to the San Fernando earthquake sequence. Journal of Geophysical Research, 89, 9305–9320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hardebeck, J. L. (2012). Coseismic and postseismic stress rotations due to great subduction zone earthquakes. Geophysical Research Letter, 39, L21313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hardebeck, J. L. (2017). The spatial distribution of earthquake stress rotations following large subduction zone earthquakes. Earth Planets and Space, 69, 69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hardebeck, J. L., & Hauksson, E. (2001). Crustal stress field in southern California and its implications for fault mechanics. Journal of Geophysical Research, 106(B10), 21859–21882.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hardebeck, J. L., & Michael, A. J. (2006). Damped regional-scale stress inversions: Methodology and examples for southern California and the Coalinga aftershock sequence. Journal of Geophysical Research Solid Earth, 111, B11310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hardebeck, J. L., & Okada, T. (2018). Temporal stress changes caused by earthquakes: A review. Journal of Geophysical Research Solid Earth, 123, 1350–1365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hasegawa, A., & Yoshida, K. (2015). Preceding seismic activity and slow slip events in the source area of the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake: A review. Geoscience Letters, 2, 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hasegawa, A., Yoshida, K., Asano, Y., et al. (2012). Change in stress field after the 2011 great Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 355–356, 231–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hasegawa, A., Yoshida, K., & Okada, T. (2011). Nearly complete stress drop in the 2011 Mw 9.0 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake. Earth Planets and Space, 63, 703–707.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hashimoto, C., & Matsu’ura, M. (2002). 3-D simulation of earthquake generation cycles and evolution of fault constitutitve properties. Pure and Applied Geophysics, 159(10), 2175–2199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hayes, G. P., Wald, D. J., & Johnson, R. L. (2012). Slab1.0: A three-dimensional model of global subduction zone geometries. Journal of Geophysical Research Solid Earth, 117(B1), 180–198.Google Scholar
  21. Hu, Y., Bürgmann, R., Uchida, N., et al. (2016). Stress-driven relaxation of heterogeneous upper mantle and time-dependent afterslip following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Journal of Geophysical Research Solid Earth, 121, 385–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ide, S., Baltay, A., & Beroza, G. C. (2011). Shallow dynamic overshoot and energetic deep rupture in the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Science, 332, 1426–1428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kubo, A., Fukuyama, E., Kawai, H., et al. (2002). NIED seismic moment tensor catalogue for regional earthquakes around Japan: Quality test and application. Tectonophysics, 356, 23–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lay, T. (2018). A review of the rupture characteristics of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki Mw 9.1 earthquake. Tectonophysics, 733, 4–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Michael, A. J. (1984). Determination of stress from slip data: Faults and folds. Journal of Geophysical Research, 89, 11517–11526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Michael, A. J. (1987). Use of focal mechanisms to determine stress: A control study. Journal of Geophysical Research, 92, 357–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Michael, A. J. (1991). Spatial variations in stress within the 1987 Whittier Narrows, California, aftershock sequence: New techniques and results. Journal of Geophysical Research, 96(B4), 6303–6319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Obana, K., Guo, F. J., Takahashi, T., et al. (2012). Normal-faulting earthquakes beneath the outer slope of the Japan Trench after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake: Implications for the stress regime in the incoming Pacific plate. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L00G24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ozawa, S., Nishimura, T., Munekane, H., et al. (2012). Preceding, coseismic, and postseismic slips of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Japan. Journal of Geophysical Research, 117, B07404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Sato, T., Hiratsuka, S., & Mori, J. (2013). Precursory seismic activity surrounding the high-slip patches of the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 103(6), 3104–3114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Simons, M., Minson, S. E., Sladen, A., et al. (2011). The 2011 magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake: Mosaicking the megathrust from seconds to centuries. Science, 332, 1421–1425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sun, T., Wang, K. L., Iinuma, T., et al. (2014). Prevalence of viscoelastic relaxation after the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Nature, 514, 84–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Tanaka, S. (2012). Tidal triggering of earthquakes prior to the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake (Mw 9.1). Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L00G26.Google Scholar
  34. Tomita, F., Kido, M., Ohta, Y., et al. (2017). Along-trench variation in seafloor displacements after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Tormann, T., Enescu, B., Woessner, J., et al. (2015). Randomness of megathrust earthquakes implied by rapid stress recovery after the Japan earthquake. Nature Geoscience, 8, NGEO2343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Uchida, N., & Matsuzawa, T. (2011). Coupling coefficient, hierarchical structure, and earthquake cycle for the source area of the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku earthquake inferred from small repeating earthquake data. Earth Planets and Space, 63, 675–679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wang, K. L., Hu, Y., & He, J. H. (2012). Deformation cycles of subduction earthquakes in a viscoelastic Earth. Nature, 484, 327–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wessel, P., & Smith, W. (1998). New, improved version of generic mapping tools released, EOS Transactions. American Geophysical Union, 79(47), 579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Zoback, M. L. (1992). First- and second-order patterns of stress in the lithosphere: The world stress map project. Journal of Geophysical Research, 97(B8), 11703–11728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Zúñiga, F. R. (1993). Frictional overshoot and partial stress drop. Which one? Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 83(3), 939–944.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Geodesy and Earth’s Dynamics, Institute of Geodesy and GeophysicsChinese Academy of SciencesWuhanChina
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Earth and Planetary Physics, Institute of Geology and GeophysicsChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina

Personalised recommendations