Our historical record of seismic activity is very short, by geological time scales. So extrapolating that record to predict future earthquakes can lead to nasty surprises, such as 2008’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan, China, which occurred on a fault that had seen little recent activity. Large earthquakes are typically followed by aftershocks whose frequency decays to some background level of seismicity, following an empirical relation known as Omori’s law. But determining the time scale of the decay and the baseline activity can be difficult. A new model by Seth Stein of Northwestern University and Mian Liu of the University of Missouri–Columbia posits an inverse relationship between the aftershock-sequence durations and the slip rates along faults. Large earthquakes are most common along the boundaries of tectonic plates, and the occurrences of aftershocks tend to decay quickly—within a decade or so—to a relatively high background. The relative plate motion at such boundaries...

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