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Next Impending Earthquake in Northern Burmese Arc - Search for A Probable Precursor
Geological Survey of India, #27, J.L. Nehru Road, Kolkata-700016 1 Department of Geology and Geophysics, King Saud University, P.O. Box 2455, Riyadh-11451, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia E-mail:

Subduction of the Indian plate below the Burmese Arc (BA) up to depths of about 200 km in a continental environment presents a unique opportunity to focus on seismogenic behaviour of active tectonic blocks. Northernmost 450 km stretch of BA outof-its 1100 km total length is seismically most active, where, the Benioff zone dips at 40°45° degrees eastward and the Arc itself takes a sinuous bend following the Tripura Fold Belt and the Naga Belt of Schuppen. The continuing subduction is responsible for accumulation of huge residual strain at lithospheric margins. Character of elastic strain that is released from time to time from this rather short portion of the plate boundary and the pattern of recurring major earthquakes provide the basis for the present study. Five major earthquakes occurring here since 1964 (when ISC data became available) are: [17.10.1969 (6.1), 6.8.1988 (6.6), 9.1.1990 (6.1), 5.1.1991 (6.1), and 6.5.1995 (6.3)]. Using these, the seismic quiescence and the corresponding b-values are estimated as precursors, where an active seismic cycle distinguishes the alternate domains of quiescence (Q1, Q2 and Q3) and active seismicity. It is found that prior to the occurrence of 6.8.1988 earthquake (mag. 6.6), there are many short and intermediate term precursors (Q1, Q2 and Q3), change in seismicity rate and b-value, that are either absent or camouflaged prior to the mainshocks of 9.1.1990 (6.1), 5.1.1991 (6.1) and 6.5.1995 (6.3). Seismicity pattern for last seven years (2002 to June 2008) starts with Q1 (2002, 13 events/yr, b = 1.45), increase in background seismicity (2003-2004, 30 events/yr, b = 1.45), Q2 (2005, 19 events/yr, b = 0.86), increase in background seismicity (2006-May 21st 2008, 22.8 events/yr, b = 1.08), and followed by Q3 for nearly one month up to the end of June 2008. Such Q3 quiescence should immediately follow a fore - main - aftershock sequence. Typical tectonic set up for north part of BA and its seismic history suggest for the magnitude of the impending event as 6.0 M or greater that is likely to be associated with a strike slip fault or a thrust (with appreciable strike slip). The exact size and timing of the event cannot however be deciphered from the available teleseismic data alone; this evidently requires data from local network on active blocks. Keywords: Subduction, Burmese Arc, b-values, Teleseismic data.


DASGUPTA AND OTHERS: Next Impending Eartquake in Northern Burmese ... a Probable Precursor

The BA is categorized as an intense seismic zone along the Indian plate margin where the ongoing subduction up to depths of about 200 km has produced several large earthquakes. A seismogenic area prior to a megathrust event usually exhibits precursors of various kinds like: hydrological, geochemical and geophysical. Geophysical precursors such as the changes in seismic source parameters, manifested seismic quiescence, Accelerating Moment Release (AMR) and changes in the b-value are taken to forecast an impending event. Further, these precursors can have short to long time-durations depending on the expected time interval prior to an impending event. A precursory phenomenon before the mainshock is regarded as a part of physical preparation for the main rupture to follow (Scholz, 2002). This physical preparation can exhibit seismic quiescence. At the same time changes in the seismic rate (Ogata, 2003) and high/ low b–values also act as meaningful precursors (Wyss and Martirosyan, 1998; Enescu and Ito, 2001, 2002; Huang et al., 2002; Monterroso and Kulhánek, 2003; Schorlemmer et al., 2004; Nuannin et al., 2005; Wiemer et al., 2005). Here we study the intermediate term geophysical precursors like: (i) Temporal quiescence, (ii) Seismicity pattern, (iii) Earthquake occurrence rate, (iv) Depth distribution of the events prior to the main event and (v) the changes in temporal ‘b’ values. We look for seismic cycles affecting BA for purposes of quantifying the physical precursors, following the methodology by Scholz (2002), in order to search for a probable precursor having relevance to crustal mega-events in this region of continental subduction.

Broad tectonic features of BA have resulted from the northeastward drift of India landmass and its collision with the Shan-block belonging to the Asian landmass by early mid-Eocene. The Burmese ranges thus represent a continuous trench-arc system from north to Andaman Arc in the south where the northern part has emerged above the sea level by the end of the Oligocene (Le Dain et al., 1984). The arc system (~ 1100 km length) has been represented by an east dipping Benioff zone penetrating to about 200 km depth sub-horizontally (Mukhopadhyay and Dasgupta, 1988; Dasgupta et al., 2003) in a continental environment and thus provide an unique opportunity to study the active arc system by surface investigations. It is now commonly accepted, as was initially proposed by Chhibber (1934), that the Burmese arc and Andaman arc further south together provide an important transitional link between the Himalayan collision zone and the Indonesian arc; the latter is in direct tectonic continuation of the Western Pacific arc systems. Northernmost 450 km stretch of BA is seismically most active, where the Benioff zone angle is 40°- 45° and arc itself takes a sinuous bend following Belt of Schuppen and Tripura Fold Belt in north and south (Figs. 1a and 1b). This aerially exposed subduction related tectonic packet (Mukhopadhyay and Dasgupta, 1988) represents a forearc basin (Tripura fold belt) in the west; folded and thrusted sedimentary arc with ophiolite mélange; Mt Popa – Chindwin –Wuntho volcanic arc; and a back arc region represented by San70

Indo-Myanmar Ranges in the Tectonic Framework of the Himalaya and Southeast Asia

Fig. 1a: The seismotectonic map of Arakan Yoma sector in the Burmese Arc with earthquake data 1964-2008 [Data Source: 1964- 2004(ISC); 2004-2008 (NEIC)]. Black stars are historical earthquakes (ABB source, 1897 – 1963) with magnitude (Ms e”7.0). CB – Central Basin, FMB – Fold Mountain Belt, Im – Imphal, Ti – Tiddim, Ga – Gangaw, Sa – Sagaing.


DASGUPTA AND OTHERS: Next Impending Eartquake in Northern Burmese ... a Probable Precursor

Fig. 1b: Seismic cross section along the line A – A’ of figure 1a showing the plate margins of Indian and Burma plate. Note the occurrences of four main-shocks, 6.1(17.10.1969), 6.6 (6.8.1998), 6.1 (9.1.1990) and 6.3 (6.5.1995) along the plate margin.

Sagaing right lateral leaky transform towards east. Surface geology and physiography broadly define three tectonic units here: Burmese Fold Mountain Belt (FMB), Central Basin (CB) and Shan Plateau. A correlation between physiographic unit and morphotectonic units will lead to a better understanding of tectonics of this region. The broad morphotectonic units recognized in this mobile belt from west to east are (Fig. 1a): (i) The outer ridge (~ FMB) representing the Palaeogene Subduction – accretion complex where several dismembered ophiolite bodies and exotic blocks of metamorphics and Mesozoic rocks occur along the seaward flanks of the fore-arc trough. Well-developed fore-arc basin (CB) in the Chindwin valley. The volcanic (magmatic) arc extends from Jade mines in the north – Monywa – Mt. Popa towards south. A narrow linear faulted back arc basin (Shan Sagaing fault)

(ii) (iii) (iv)

Details of subduction and accretion process in BA remain poorly studied: some workers, including us, have advocated for active subduction (Mukhopadhyay and Dasgupta 1988; Satyabala 1998; Dasgupta et al. 2003), still others argue for slow or no subduction at all (Le Dain et al., 1984; Ni et al., 1989; Chen and Molnar, 1990; Rao and Kumar, 1999). Whatever may be the rate of subduction, the lithospheric plates in BA accumulate huge residual strain from the onset of subduction (early mid-Eocene) which are released time to time by recurring shocks of variable magnitudes extending in focal depths down to 200 km (Figs. 1a and 1b). The events are clearly more localized between the Eastern Boundary Thrust and the Burmese Volcanic Arc and is also reflected as a linear tract along the segment of Shan-Sagaing fault north of 23°N latitude. The segments of Shan-Sagaing fault south of 23°N latitude are presently aseismic. The concentration of deeper focus earthquakes between 23° N and 25° N latitudes is particularly interesting as it calls for lithospheric 72

Indo-Myanmar Ranges in the Tectonic Framework of the Himalaya and Southeast Asia

flexure, where, we find moderate size earthquakes have been generated in association with thrust or strike-slip faults (Dasgupta et al., 2000).

We utilize ISC bulletin data (period: 1964-2004) and NEIC USGS data (period: 2005 – June 2008) for the present study. Considering the fact that monitoring capability for smaller earthquakes (below magnitude 4.0) for this remote region for the data sampling period is rather inadequate, we consider data above this threshold magnitude for the analysis presented here. During the time period, the area produced a major shock of 6.6 magnitudes on 6.8.1988. The area had also spawned three major shocks of comparable magnitude: 14.8.1932 (Ms 7.0), 16.8.1938 (Ms 7.2) and 12.9.1946 (Ms 7.8) during last 100 years, thereby attesting to its seismic potentiality. Bar diagram of sequential magnitude occurrences over the years (Fig. 2) and number of earthquakes against years (Fig. 3) clearly reveal the high and low periods of earthquake occurrences. Prior to 1978 earthquake occurrence is less in number that suddenly increased subsequently, but part of it must be ascribed to an increase in station coverage in this time. Magnitude occurrence plot (Fig. 2) shows the existence of five mainshocks above 6.0 magnitude and the corresponding seismicity pattern (Fig. 1a). This is evaluated with reference to the five major earthquakes in BA [17.10.1969 (6.1), 6.8.1988 (6.6), 9.1.1990 (6.1), 5.1.1991 (6.1), 6.5.1995 (6.3)].

Fig. 2:

Plot of magnitude of earthquakes against year.

For any meaningful evaluation between seismic cycle and quiescence, it is considered relevant to have a quick reference to the theoretical background on seismic cycle and underlying quiescence model widely discussed in literature. Seismic quiescence is defined as periods where seismicity rate decreases to levels significantly below the normal seismicity rate. Scholz (1988) divided the seismic cycle of an active seismic domain into alternate domains of seismic quiescence (Q1, Q2 and Q3) and active seismicity. ‘Q1’ is defined as quiescence period between a majorshock – aftershock sequence and a further increase in background seismicity. ‘Q2’ is defined as a lull period between the previously defined increase in background seismicity and further renewed seismicity. ‘Q3’ is defined as a short time respite of seismicity prior to a main shock – aftershock sequence. The seismicity pattern in BA is evaluated for the period 1969 to June 2008, with particular reference to four major earthquakes of respective focal depth > 100 km: 17.10.1969 (6.1) depth 124 km, 6.8.1988 (6.6) depth 108 km, 9.1.1990 depth 118 73

DASGUPTA AND OTHERS: Next Impending Eartquake in Northern Burmese ... a Probable Precursor

Table 1. Earthquake Statistics in the Study Area (22°- 26°N: 93°- 96°E).
Year No. of events mb>= 4.0 7 4 7 7 8 12 9 7 3 23 20 13 19 20 20 24 12 13 18 31 Mmax Seismic occurrence rate (events/yr) 7 b-value Observation/ Analysis

1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988

6.1 5.1 5.6 4.8 5.8 4.9 5.3 4.9 5.2 5.1 5.2 5.2 5.7 5.0 5.7 5.7 4.8 5.2 5.7 6.6


MS 17.10.1969 (6.1)



Post Seismic quiescence: Q1 of Scholz (1988)



Increase in background seismicity (Scholz, 1988) Intermediate term quiescence for 3 years: Q2 of Scholz (19880 with comparative low seismicity Q3 of 17 days prior to MS {6.8.1988 (6.6)}. Increase in seismicity due to FS +MS +AS Unusual increase in seismicity due to presence of three Mainshock and corresponding aftershocks sequences which elevated the release in strain Q1, Q2 or Q3 not so prominent prior to the MS The MS sequences are i) 9.1.1990 (6.1); Q3 8 days ii) 5.1.1991 (6.1); Q3 1 days iii) 6.5.1995 (6.30; Q3 1 days

14.33 31

0.86 0.73

1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 JanJune 2008

23 27 30 30 29 20 32 33 22 24 27 21 23 13 25 35 19 24 23 10

5.4 6.1 6.1 5.8 5.3 5.9 6.3 4.9 5.3 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.2 4.7 4.8 4.8 5.7 5.7 5.1 4.5



13 30 19 22.8

1.45 1.45 0.86 1.08

Post Seismic quiscence: Q1 of Scholz Increase in background seismicity Intermediate term quiescence for 1 year: Q2 of Scholz (1988) Increase in background seismicity Quiescence (Q3) of 1 month sets in after 21.5.2008 (4.4) event-indicating a big event ~M>6 is impending in near future.


Indo-Myanmar Ranges in the Tectonic Framework of the Himalaya and Southeast Asia

Fig. 3:

Plot of number of earthquakes against year. Occurrence of maximum magnitude in a year placed as label.

km and 6.5.1995 (6.3) depth 120 km. All four earthquakes occurred at the coupled margin of the Indian and Burma plates (Fig. 1b). The earthquake data from 1969 to margin of the Indian and Burma plates (Fig. 1b). The earthquake data from 1969 to 2008 with number of earthquakes and Mmax for the respective year are listed (Table I). The mainshock of 17.10.1969 (6.1) with no identified foreshock and one aftershock at 29.10.1969 (4.7) is followed by a post seismic quiescence (Q1 of Scholz 1988) from 1970 to 1977 with a low seismic occurrence rate of 7.13 events / year. This low seismic occurrence rate indicates a stress relaxation after a large earthquake. A distinct increase in background seismicity (18.85 events / year) is clearly noticed between 1978 – 1984, that was followed by intermediate term quiescence (Q2, 14.33 events / year) during 1985-1987. Analyses of the data for the year 1988 indicate five foreshocks and a Q3 quiescence of 17 days prior to the megaevent of 6.6.1988 (6.6). The downward migration of seismic activity (Mogi, 1988) upto a depth of 129 km prior to the main event at 108 km depth is also noticed. This event is followed by 17 aftershocks in the ruptured area which increases the overall seismic occurrence rate to 31 events / year. The event of 6.8.1988 (6.6) has increased the seismic propensity to such an extent that the following years between 1989 and 2001, the area witnessed a huge increase in seismicity (26.23 events / year) and occurrence of three major events [9.1.1990 (6.1), 5.1.1991 (6.1), and 6.5.1995 (6.3)]. The 1990 and 1995 events are on the plate boundary and the 1991 event is located on Shan – Sagaing fault. Noticeably the precursory quiescence prior to these events is either absent or camouflaged by the increase in background seismicity. Seismicity pattern in the following years (2002 to June 2008) is quite interesting in the light of the precursor study. The precursory cycle starts with ‘Q1’ (2002, 13 events / year), increase in background seismicity (2003-2004, 30 events / year), ‘Q2’ (2005, 19 events / year) and increase in background seismicity (2006 – 21st May 2008, 22.8 events / year). The last event recorded is a 4.4 magnitude event in 21.05.2008 with a depth penetration to 133 km. The non-occurrence of any event after 21.5.2008 up to the end 75

DASGUPTA AND OTHERS: Next Impending Eartquake in Northern Burmese ... a Probable Precursor

of June 2008 may be considered as ‘Q3’ quiescence of Scholz (1988). We speculate that this may follow an impending mainshock-aftershock sequence.

Seismicity rate is defined as a ratio between the numbers of earthquakes occurring against a specific time frame. High asperity along fault generally represents high seismic rate (Wyss et al., 1984) and vice versa. Seismicity rate also considered as precursor where low seismicity rate has been encountered by investigators prior to a large earthquake (Ogata, 2003) like Kalapana Hawaii earthquake of November 1975 and the Irpinia earthquake in south Italy (see cross references in Wyss et al., 1998). The seismic rate given by the number of events / year is calculated for different time intervals between 1969 to 2008 (Table I) and is plotted on Fig. 4.

Fig. 4:

Plot of seismic rate against year. Note the magnitude of mainshocks as label.

Fig. 5:

Time-dependence of b-value recognized for the Burmese Arc since 1970. Note the magnitude of mainshocks as labeled.

The highest seismic rates observed are in 1988, 1989-2001 and 2003-2004. Prior to 6.8.1988 (6.6) event the low seismicity rate 14.33 events/year in 1985-1987 compared to 31 in 1988 indicates a precursor. The increase in seismicity rate during 1988 is mainly due to the presence of aftershocks. The increase in seismic rate in 2003-2004 is due to presence of many small events ~ magnitude 4.0. Significantly 76

Indo-Myanmar Ranges in the Tectonic Framework of the Himalaya and Southeast Asia

this seismic rate is rather low for the most recent past 2006-08 (only 22.8 events / year, Fig. 5), which may indicate a precursor prior to a major event.

The earthquake size distribution [frequency-magnitude distribution, FMD (Gutenberg and Richter, 1944)] follows the well-known power law, designated as bvalue that is commonly used to designate the relative occurrences of large and small earthquake events (Schorlemmer et al., 2005). The b-value in the present study has been estimated by maximum-likelihood method using the equation (Aki, 1965; Ustu, 1965; Bender, 1983), b = loge / (M – Mmin), where M denotes the mean magnitude and Mmin the minimum magnitude of the given sample. The parameter ‘b’ depends on the effective stress regime and tectonic character of the region (Hatzidimitriou et al., 1985; Tsapanos, 1990). Decreasing ‘b’ within the seismogenic volume correlates with increasing effective stress levels prior to major shocks (Kanamori, 1981) or an increase in applied shear stress / effective stress (Urbancic, et al., 1992). Several studies have been carried out to examine the potential of temporal changes in bvalue as a short-term, medium-term and long-term earthquake precursor. Results show that large earthquakes are often preceded by a medium-term increase in ‘b’, followed by a decrease in the weeks-months before the earthquake (Sammonds et al., 1992). Schorlemmer et al. (2005) demonstrated that b-value varies systematically for different styles of faulting. Normal faulting is associated with the highest b-values (~1.2); strike-slip events show intermediate values (~1.0) and thrust events the lowest values (~0.90) from global catalogues. Thus ‘b’ acts as a ‘stressmeter’ in earth crust and depend inversely on the applied differential stress. Smith (1986) observed that the Cape Campbell earthquake of January 1977 was preceded by and located close to a high b-value. In our previous study in search of precursor of great 26th December 2004 Sumatra earthquake (9.3 Mw) in Sumatra – Great Nocober region, we have established a temporal low in b-value (0.68-0.8) prior to the thrust related megaevents of 2.11.2002 (M 7.6) and 26.12.2004 (M 9.3) (Dasgupta et al., 2007) which corroborated well with the observed and experimental data of Schorlemmer et al. (2005). The b-value calculated by equation 2 for different time period from 1970 to 2008 (Table I) is plotted in a graph (Fig. 5). The b-value raises from 0.63-0.72-0.86 prior to the 6.8.1988 (6.6) thrust type of earthquake (Table 2) corroborates well with the values given by Schorlemmer et al. (2005) for thrust earthquakes. A slight increase in b-value to 1.08 during 1989 – 2001 takes place due to presence of three major shock [9.1.1990 (6.1), 5.1.1991 (6.1), 6.5.1995 (6.3)] and aftershock sequences. These three earthquakes either exhibit strike slip or a combination of strike slip and thrust movement (Table 2). Furthermore, the b value of 1.08 corroborates well with the observed and experimental data of Schorlemmer et al. (2005) for strike slip earthquakes. Major increases in b-value 1.45 during 2002 – 2004 indicates only a rise in the background seismicity, with increase in smaller events (~ 4.0 Mb) and exhibit a form of intermediate time recovery precursor by strain softening (Meredith et al., 1990). This high b-value also indicates either or in combination of the following phenomena - increase in stress intensity and crack density, creep along fault planes, decrease of effective stress due to shear slip on subsidiary fault and changes in pore fluid pressure. Presently (2006-2008) the b value is 1.08. This drop in b-value 77

DASGUPTA AND OTHERS: Next Impending Eartquake in Northern Burmese ... a Probable Precursor

Table 2. CMT solution for major earthquakes of the Burmese Arc (source HRVD).
Date Hr:Mn:Sec Latitude Longitude Mb Mw T axis Plunge T axis Azimuth P axis Plunge P axis Azimuth Focal Plane 1 strike Focal Plane 1 dip Focal Plane 1 Rake Focal Plane 2 strike Focal Plane 2 dip Focal Plane 2 rake Type of fault movement* 6.8.1988 00:36:38 25.2 94.89 6.6 7.3 65 117 5 217 284 45 55 148 54 120 Thrust 9.1.1990 18:51:36 24.4 94.95 6.1 6.3 58 142 20 16 140 32 139 267 69 64 Thrust with appreciable strike slip component 5.1.1991 18:51:36 23.6 96.18 6.1 7 25 321 6 228 2 68 166 97 77 23 Strike slip 6.5.1995 01:59:14 24.8 95.02 6.3 6.4 69 94 9 209 278 39 60 135 57 112 Thrust

* Following Aki-Richards convention on slip corresponds to a reduction in stress intensity, strain hardening prior to a critical rupture by precursory slip behind an accelerating crack front and sudden stress drop (Meredith et al., 1990). This intermediate b-value probably indicates an impending earthquake, with either strike slip or thrust slip, having appreciable strike slip movement in north part of BA.

The seismic pattern in BA studied here using data from 1969 through June 2008 brings out several salient characters of plate margin seismicity. Since the earthquake of magnitude 6.1 which occurred on 17.10.1969, a complete seismic cycle of 31 years with four mainshock events [6.8.1988 (6.6), 9.1.1990 (6.1), 5.1.1991 (6.1), and 6.5.1995 (6.3)] with different phases of quiescence (Q1, Q2 and Q3) and active seismicity has been identified. The latest Q3 quiescence from 21.5.2008 up to the end of June 2008 may yield an impending event of 6.0 M or even greater. The seismic rate changes and temporal b-value data indicate that the impending event may be with strike slip or thrust with appreciable strike slip movement along fault plane. The exact size and timing of the event cannot however be deciphered from the teleseismic data alone; this would require data from local seismic network as well.


Indo-Myanmar Ranges in the Tectonic Framework of the Himalaya and Southeast Asia

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