Slab buckling and its effect on the distributions and focal mechanisms of deep-focus earthquakes

R. Myhill*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


This integrated study of deep earthquake locations and focal mechanisms investigates the relationship between the shape of subducting slabs and seismic behaviour in Wadati-Benioff zones. High quality earthquake locations are used to map the shapes of subducting slabs which have reached the upper-lower mantle boundary. The resulting slab models reveal the presence of large slab folds in the mantle transition zone. The distributions and focal mechanisms of deep earthquakes are analysed to determine whether these folds have a role in governing Wadati-Benioff zone seismicity. Bands or lineations of dense seismicity are associated with the hinge zones of identified folds. The focal mechanisms of earthquakes within these bands reveal that the mapped fold hinges are commonly perpendicular to the directions of maximum coseismic extension and compression. The hinges plunge at a variety of angles, resulting in systematic deviations from the downdip stress field expected within planar slabs. Slab synforms are typified by earthquake focal mechanisms indicating in-plane compression (e.g. Izu-Bonin, Tonga), while antiforms have earthquake focal mechanisms indicating in-plane extension (e.g. Solomons) or a mixture of in-plane compression and extension (e.g. Tonga). Slab buckling explains both the clustering of earthquakes and the observed focal mechanism orientations within fold hinges. The localization of strain within buckle zones results in several of the peaks observed in regional earthquake depth distributions. During buckling, the directions of maximum shortening and extension are expected to be perpendicular to the fold hinges, in agreement with deep earthquake moment tensors. Displacement of the minimumstrain surface away from the centre of each seismogenic zone canexplain the predominance of in-plane compression within synforms and in-plane extension within antiforms. More complex local variation in focal mechanism orientations in the Tonga slab can be explained by a superposition of in-plane compression and bending strain. Buckling appears to be a common mechanism facilitating convergence between subducting slabs and the lower mantle. The consequent rotation and translation of fold limbs may explain the discrepancy between estimates of convergence based on subduction velocities and longterm coseismic strain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)837-853
Number of pages17
JournalGeophysical Journal International
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Dynamics of lithosphere and mantle
  • Folds and folding
  • High strain deformation zones.
  • Seismicity and tectonics
  • Subduction zone processes


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