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A major study of earthquake faults reveals how the Earth controls the size of faults

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There is more than 32 times the energy in an 8-magnitude earthquake compared to a 7-magnitude earthquake – scientists have discovered a natural “ gateway ” that controls earthquakes that are allowed to increase to that higher range.

The gate in question is located at the fault of the New Zealand Alps. A new analysis estimates that the rift has a 75 percent chance of causing a devastating earthquake within the next 50 years or so.

This is partly due to the earthquake gate that the research team identified: a specific set of geological conditions that could prevent an earthquake from growing. At the Alpine fault, the next major earthquake has an 82 percent chance of passing through the gateway and reaching a magnitude of 8.

“An earthquake gate is like a person directing traffic in a single-lane building area,” says geologist Nicholas Barth of the University of California, Riverside. “Sometimes you stop and get a green sign, and other times you have a red stop sign until conditions change.”

Barth and colleagues combined computer models with sedimentary records collected from six different sites. The sediments – which trap evidence of earthquakes and landslides – showed the extent of 20 major earthquakes along the Alpine fault over the past 4,000 years.

The modeling was then able to show how faulty geometry such as steps and bends in rocks could prevent certain types of earthquakes – but each earthquake affects the condition of the rift and gate, and makes conditions different the next time.

“The simulations show that a 6 to 7 magnitude earthquake at the earthquake gate can change the pressure and break the chain of larger earthquakes,” says Barth.

“We know that the last three rips passed through the earthquake gate. In our best model, the next earthquake will also pass 82 percent of the time.”

Alpine fault sediments record. (Jimmy Howarth / Victoria University of Wellington)

Other earthquake gates around the world are also under investigation, but 4,000 years of sediment data and 100,000 years of AI-generated simulations in the New Zealand Alpine Rift are giving geologists a plethora of data to study.

Another area currently under study is in Cajon Pass in the United States, where the combination of San Andreas and San Jacinto faults can cause gate-like behavior that will affect the magnitude of future earthquakes.

As more earthquake gates are identified and understood, predictions and models could improve – not only in terms of why and when earthquakes happen, but also in terms of the type of blow they might inflict on the scale of magnitude.

“We’re starting to get to the point where our data and models are detailed enough that we can start predicting earthquake patterns,” says Barth. “It is not just how likely an earthquake is, but how large and widespread it is, which will help us better prepare.”

The research has been published in Nature Geoscience.

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