Large uncertainties in earthquake stress-drop estimates and their tectonic consequences

James S. Neely*, Seth Stein, Bruce D. Spencer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Earthquake stress drop, the stress change on a fault due to an earthquake, is important for seismic hazard analysis because it controls the level of high-frequency ground motions that damage structures. Numerous studies report that stress drops vary by tectonic environment, providing insight into a region's seismic hazard. Here, we show that teleseismic stress-drop estimates have large uncertainties that make it challenging to distinguish differences between the stress drops of different earthquakes. We compared stress drops for ∼900 earthquakes derived from two independent studies using teleseismic data and found practically zero correlation. Estimates for the same earthquake can differ by orders of magnitude. Therefore, reported stress-drop differences between earthquakes may not reflect true differences. As a result of these larger uncertainties, some tectonic environment stress-drop patterns that appear in one study do not appear in the other analysis of the same earthquakes. These large uncertainties in teleseismic estimates might lead to erroneous inferences about earthquake hazards. In many applications, it may be more appropriate to assume that earthquakes in different regions have approximately the same average stress drop.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2320-2329
Number of pages10
JournalSeismological Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics


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