I am a beginner in geology and earthquake studies, and learning about subduction zones recently.

Question is: do large earthquakes (sometimes referred to as megathrust quakes) occur on any point in the Subduction zone? For example, the Indo-Australian plate subducts underneath the Burma microplate, and the Sunda plate. So does the megathrust quake occur anywhere along this zone or is it limited to certain areas within the subduction zone?

Another related one is what is the different b/w earth quake and rupture process that happens after an earth quake. Example: in some articles about the 2004 Northern-Sumatra quake, I read that "the rupture continued northward for nearly 1000 km".

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good question but it is really two separate questions and would benefit from being separated as such. $\endgroup$
    – bon
    Jan 25, 2018 at 17:26

2 Answers 2


Megathrust is not a particularly well defined term but in my experience it generally refers to very large earthquakes that occur on the subduction interface.

The subduction interface is the main surface which separates the overriding plate from the subducting plate and is where most of the convergence is accomodated.

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Earthquakes occur on the subduction interface when the two plates are locked together (referred to as strong coupling) and cannot move past each other, leading to accumulation of strain which is eventually released in an earthquake. The amount of coupling on the subduction interface can vary strongly along its length. Chlieh et al., 2008 says this about the Sumatran megathrust:

Near the equator, the megathrust is locked over a narrow width of only a few tens of kilometers. In contrast, the locked fault zone is up to about 175 km wide in areas where great interplate earthquakes have occurred in the past.

Some subduction interfaces are thought to be almost entirely decoupled and do not generate megathrust earthquakes but large earthquakes can still occur on splay faults in the accretionary prism (Shaw et al., 2008).

With regards to the second part of the question, earthquakes are seismic waves generated by rupturing of rocks in response to accumulated stress. Every earthquake creates a rupture patch with a certain area. The 2004 Sumatra earthquake had a rupture patch that was over 1300 km long which is enormous, hence why it had a such a large magnitude. The rupture started at the southern end of the fault and propagated northwards at 2-3 km/s, taking around 9 minutes to fully rupture. The epicentre is the location of the initial rupture.

The seismic moment of an earthquake ($\mathrm{M_0}$ is related to the area of the rupture patch ($\mathrm{A}$), the average displacement on the fault ($\mathrm{D}$) and the friction coefficient on the fault plane ($\mu$) by: $$\mathrm{M_0 = \mu A D}$$

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clarifications (and the extra information about Sumatra quakes). $\endgroup$
    – Kabeer
    Jan 26, 2018 at 5:07

Yes, mega thrust earthquake can occur in any point of any subduction zone. However, some areas areas are much more active than others, meaning that the frequency of earthquakes and energy released per event will vary largely from place to place. Convergence rate is one important controlling factor for that, but not the only.

Regarding the difference between the earthquake and the rupture process, they are two aspects of the same phenomena. I think your confusion arise by the fact that the location associated to the earthquake (most commonly the epicenter) is associated to the initiation point of the rupture process. However, the energy released by the earthquake and therefore its magnitude is computed from all the energy released along the whole rupture (area of the fault that displaced).

Summarising, the earthquake itself is the whole rupture, but the reported location is the one of the initiation point of the rupture.


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