Interaction Between the Himalaya and the Flexed Indian Plate - Spatial Fluctuations in Seismic Hazard in India in the Past Millennium?

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Between the tenth and early 16th centuries three megaquakes allowed most of the northern edge of the Indian plate to slip 20-24 m northward relative to the overlying Himalaya. Although the renewal time for earthquakes with this large amount of slip is less than 1300 years given a geodetic convergence rate of 16-20 mm/yr, recently developed scaling laws for the Himalaya suggest that the past 200 years of great earthquakes may be associated with slip of less than 10 m and renewal times of approximately 500 years. These same theoretical models show that the rupture lengths of the Himalaya's Medieval earthquakes (300-600 km) are too short to permit 24 m of slip given the relationships demonstrated by recent events. There is thus reason to suppose that recent earthquakes may have responded to different elastic driving forces from those that drove the megaquakes of Medieval times.

An alternative source of energy to drive Himalayan earthquakes exists in the form of the elastic and gravitational energy stored in flexure of the Indian plate. The flexure is manifest in the form of a 200-450 m high bulge in central India, which is sustained by the forces of collision and by the end-loading of the plate by the Himalaya and southern Tibet. These flexural stresses are responsible for earthquakes in the sub-continent. The abrupt release of stress associated with the northward translation of the northern edge of the Indian plate by 24 m, were the process entirely elastic, would result in a deflation of the crest of the bulge by roughly 0.8 m. Geometrical changes, however, would be moderated by viscous rheologies in the plate and by viscous flow in the mantle in the following centuries.

The hypothesized relaxation of flexural geometry following the Himalayan megaquake sequence would have the effect of backing-off stresses throughout central India resulting in quiescence both in the Himalaya and the Indian plate. The historical record shows an absence of great Himalayan earthquakes in the late 16th to early 19th centuries, and colonial records for this period contain few records of earthquakes in central India. Although this may be an artifact caused by a poor recorded history, it is unlikely that Mw>8.2 earthquakes have escaped notice in the Mughal or early colonial histories.

Recent mid-plate earthquakes in India may thus represent a redevelopment of flexural stressing of the Indian plate. Their return also signifies the development of stresses in the Himalaya that will eventually be released in great Himalayan earthquakes.


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