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J Seismol (2017) 21:127135

DOI 10.1007/s10950-016-9589-1


Gutenberg-Richter b-value maximum likelihood estimation

and sample size
F. A. Nava & V. H. Mrquez-Ramrez & F. R. Ziga &
L. vila-Barrientos & C. B. Quinteros

Received: 21 November 2015 / Accepted: 23 May 2016 / Published online: 2 June 2016
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Abstract The Aki-Utsu maximum likelihood meth- Keywords Gutenberg-Richter b-value . Maximum
od is widely used for estimation of the Gutenberg- likelihood estimation . Aki/Utsu method
Richter b-value, but not all authors are conscious of
the methods limitations and implicit requirements.
The Aki/Utsu method requires a representative esti- 1 Introduction
mate of the population mean magnitude; a require-
ment seldom satisfied in b-value studies, particularly Possibly the most widely used statistical relation in
in those that use data from small geographic and/or seismology is the Gutenberg-Richter (G-R) distribu-
time windows, such as b-mapping and b-vs-time tion (Ishimoto and Iida 1939; Gutenberg and Richter
studies. Monte Carlo simulation methods are used 1944; Richter 1958), which relates the number of
to determine how large a sample is necessary to earthquakes above a given magnitude, N(M), to the
achieve representativity, particularly for rounded magnitude, M, as
magnitudes. The size of a representative sample
weakly depends on the actual b-value. It is shown log10 N M ab M M 1 ; M M 1; 1
that, for commonly used precisions, small samples
where M1 is a lower threshold below which magnitudes
give meaningless estimations of b. Our results give
are not considered. Parameter a is the logarithm of the
estimates on the probabilities of getting correct esti-
total number of earthquakes with magnitude M M1 and
mates of b for a given desired precision for samples
is a constant that depends on the seismicity rate and the
of different sizes. We submit that all published stud-
length of the observation time. Parameter b, widely
ies reporting b-value estimations should include in-
referred to as the b-value, hereafter referred to as b, is
formation about the size of the samples used.
a constant that relates the relative numbers of small to
large magnitudes. Typically, b 1, and M1 is the com-
F. A. Nava (*) : L. vila-Barrientos : C. B. Quinteros pleteness magnitude below which log10 N(M) ceases to
Sismologa, Centro de investigacin Cientifica y de Educacin behave linearly due to insufficient coverage (e.g.,
Superior de Ensenada, Ensenada, B.C., Mexico Wiemer and Wyss 2000).
Usually M 1 is estimated from the observed
V. H. Mrquez-Ramrez : F. R. Ziga log10 N(M) or from the noncumulative log10 n(M)
Centro de Geociencias, Universidad Nacional Autnoma de histograms, which requires an adequate magnitude
Mxico, Juriquilla, Qro., Mexico sample. However, this is not always the case: Some-
V. H. Mrquez-Ramrez times, M1 may be estimated for a given data set and
SisVoc, CUC, Universidad de Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Jal., then used for a different dataset; not uncommon is
Mexico the use of the completeness magnitude appropriate
128 J Seismol (2017) 21:127135

for the complete data set of a given seismic network M1 M/2 and, instead of Eq. (3), Utsus (1965)
or array in studies involving subsets of the data. formula
Since the G-R relation gives estimates for the
occurrence ratio of earthquakes with magnitudes log10 e
b 4
above a given value, b has been widely used for M M 1 M =2
seismic hazard and risk estimations (e.g., Bender
1983). An inverse relationship between b and the is applicable.
stress level in a given region has been proposed Once M1 has been estimated, Eqs. (3) or (4) have been
(e.g., Scholz 1968; Ghosh et al. 2008), and several used as a simple and straightforward way of estimating b,
studies have found possibly premonitory behavior in which is less cumbersome than that of fitting a straight
the values of b before large earthquakes (e.g., Shaw line to the magnitude histogram. We will refer to this
et al. 1992; Wyss and Wiemer 2000; Enescu and Ito approach to b-value estimation as the Aki-Utsu method.
2001; Mrquez-Ramirez 2012). Regional variations However, when using the Aki-Utsu method, it is
of b have been used to identify zones susceptible to often not taken into account that b and M in the
large ruptures (e.g., Wiemer and Wyss 1997; Ziga abovementioned formulae are population parameters;
and Wyss 2001; Montuori et al. 2010). Since Aki the actual formula used for estimation is
(1981) proposed a relation between b and the fractal
dimension of fault planes, b has been emplyed in ^b log10 e
seismic fractality studies (e.g., Singh et al. 2009). b
M M 1 M =2
The many applications of b in seismology, partic-
ularly on the field of seismic hazard estimation, where ^b and Mb are estimates, and ^b will agree with b
indicate the necessity of estimating b correctly in b is representative of, i.e., reasonably close to,
order to obtain meaningful and reliable results. In only if M
what follows, we will address the problem of sam- the true M . This, in turn, means that M b should be
pling and the reliability associated with it. calculated from an adequate sample, i.e., one that in-
cludes enough data, but in many cases, it is estimated
from too small samples, either because data are scarce or
because no attention is paid to the matter of
2 The problem
An example of studies where this problem may ap-
Equation (1) implies that magnitudes are distributed
pear is b-mapping, where M1 is estimated for a given
exponentially as
data set in some regin, and then the region is
subdivided in volume elements or cells, and some of
f M eM M 1 ; M M 1; 2 these cells may not include enough data to yield a
reliable estimate (e.g., Khan 2005; Bhattacharya et al.
where = b ln(10) (c.f. Epstein and Lomnitz 1966; 2002; Singh and Singh 2015). Another example is the
Lomnitz 1966, 1974). study of changes in b vs time, where M b is determined
Based on the premise of this magnitude distribution, from the data in time windows, and there is a tradeoff
Aki (1965) showed that the maximum likelihood esti- between the length and/or number of data in the time
mate of b is window and the resolution in time. In these and other
cases, not only data may not be enough, but also the
log10 e overall M1 may not be appropriate for all data subsets.
b 3
M M 1 The question arises: How many data are enough for
M to be representative and b^ to be reliable? The answer,
where M is the observed mean magnitude. of course, depends on the desired precision of ^b; so we
In practice, magnitudes are rounded to some will rephrase the question: What is the minimum num-
M, usually M = 0.1, and when magnitudes are ber of data required in a sample, to achieve a desired
rounded, the actual minimum magnitude is precision for ^b with a given probability?
J Seismol (2017) 21:127135 129

This question has been addressed by Shi and Bolt considering magnitudes rounded to M. r is a uniformly
(1982), hereafter referred to as SB, who give an analyt- distributed pseudo-random number in the (0,1) interval,
ical estimate of the ^
b distribution for unrounded magni- generated using the Matlab rand function with the
tudes, as a function of the number of samples N, for Twister generator, discarding magnitudes larger than
stationary b, and for N large enough for Mb to approach a an arbitrary upper limit M2q = 9.2 set to avoid unaccept-
ably large (potentially infinite) magnitudes; since very
normal distribution; the ^b distribution is large magnitudes are very scarce, this limit does not
2 !2 3
  rN b b
significantly affect results.
g ^
b exp4N 1 =25 6 We also tried the doubly truncated Gutenberg-
2 ^ 2
b Richter distribution, as
How well does Eq. (6) agree with ^b determinations M ln eM 1q r eM 1q eM 2q =;
for samples with small N?
In what follows, we use Monte Carlo methods to but, since both manitude generating schemes yielded
simulate actual sampling in order to explore the distri- essentially the same results, because their outputs differ
bution of ^b for samples of different sizes and different only for very large magnitudes close to M2, and since the
true values of b. Our results let us determine the range of Aki-Utsu estimates assume a singly truncated exponen-
applicability of Eq. (6), explore the effects of small N tial distribution, we present here only the results obtain-
and of magnitude rounding, and establish some quanti- ed from Eq. (7).
tative guidelines for sampling. Figure 1 shows results from 250,000 realizations,
each, of ^b determinations, for a true b = 1.0, from sam-
ples having from 10 to 100,000 data. The thick (blue)
3 Monte Carlo estimation of sampling line shows the mean of all estimated ^b values for each
sample size, and the thin (red) lines show the mean 1
We simulate magnitude sampling, in the (M1, M2) mag- standard deviation (continuous) and 2 standard devia-
nitude range from the Gutenberg-Richter distribution as tions (dashed).
M M 1q lnr=; 7 The graph on the left hand side is for unrounded
magnitudes and shows quantitatively exactly what
where M1q and M2q equal M1 and M2, respectively, would be expected qualitatively; the graph on the
when considering unrounded magnitudes, and equal right side is for magnitudes rounded to the custom-
M 1 M/2 and M 2 + M/2, respectively, when ary 0.1. Both graphs show that estimates from small

Fig. 1 Estimated ^ b vs sample

size N.Unrounded magnitudes
(left). Magnitudes rounded to 0.1
(right). The thick, continuous
(blue) line is the mean of 250,000
realizations for each of various
sample sizes N samples, and the
thin (red) lines indicate mean
value 1 standard deviation
(continuous) and 2 standard
deviations (dashed)
130 J Seismol (2017) 21:127135

samples, besides being probably overestimated, are To illustrate how individual estimates can be expect-
really meaningless (i.e., completely unreliable) be- ed to behave, we obtained ^b histograms for some repre-
cause standard deviations are extremely large. The sentative sample sizes, true b-values, and desired preci-
estimate averages over a large number of realiza- sions. All histograms were obtained from sets of
tions are overestimated, because small magnitudes 500,000 realizations for each data set length, and the
are much more numerous than large magnitudes. corresponding SB analytical distributions are plotted
Thus, any one ^ b estimation from less than, say, over the histograms for comparison.
300 data can take values over a range of several Figure 2 shows, on the left, the histograms (blue,
tenths of a unit with large probability. continuous lines) with classes ^b 0:010 wide, for ^b
While, for large samples, the mean estimate from estimated from unrounded magnitudes distributed ac-
unrounded magnitudes converges to the true value, for cording to Eq. (2) for b = 1.00 and different sample
rounded magnitudes, large samples lead to an underes- sizes; it also shows the corresponding SB analytical
timation of it, unless a correction for rounding is applied distributions (red, dashed lines). There is extremely
(see, for example, Mrquez-Ramrez et al. 2015), be- good agreement between histogram and distribution
cause the magnitude value at the center of each class is for samples with N 100, while for samples below
not an unbiased representative of the magnitudes in the N 50, the agreement is not so good, because N is not
class. This is a minor effect that will be ignored in what large enough to fulfill the SB assumptions, but it is not
follows. too bad although the modal values do not coincide. As

Fig. 2 Synthetic data histograms for 500,000 realizations for histograms,while the dashed (red) lines are the SB distribution.
b = 1.0 and classes ^
b 0:010 wide. Graph on the left is for The vertical solid line indicates the true b-value, and the vertical
unrounded magnitudes, and on the right for magnitudes rounded dashed line indicates the observed mean value
to M = 0.1. The thick continuous (blue) lines are the
J Seismol (2017) 21:127135 131

Table 1 Probabilities of obtaining the correct value (Pr), an underestimated value (Pr), and an overestimated value (Pr+) for true b = 1.0,
precisions ^
b 0:010, 0.025, and 0.050, and different sample sizes N

b = 1.0

^b 0:010 ^b 0:025 ^b 0:050

N s Pr Pr Pr+ Pr Pr Pr+ Pr Pr Pr+


10 1.103 0.385 0.462 0.000 0.538 0.462 0.029 0.508 0.434 0.058 0.508
25 1.037 0.214 0.474 0.018 0.508 0.455 0.055 0.489 0.437 0.092 0.470
50 1.015 0.145 0.478 0.026 0.496 0.464 0.066 0.467 0.426 0.144 0.430
100 1.005 0.101 0.485 0.037 0.478 0.457 0.092 0.451 0.403 0.201 0.395
200 1.001 0.071 0.483 0.060 0.457 0.445 0.138 0.418 0.369 0.282 0.349
500 0.998 0.044 0.489 0.087 0.423 0.420 0.221 0.359 0.313 0.424 0.263
1000 0.997 0.031 0.489 0.124 0.387 0.394 0.306 0.300 0.248 0.570 0.182
2000 0.996 0.022 0.486 0.175 0.339 0.354 0.419 0.226 0.170 0.731 0.098
5000 0.996 0.014 0.479 0.266 0.256 0.277 0.605 0.118 0.066 0.913 0.020
10,000 0.996 0.010 0.473 0.353 0.174 0.202 0.752 0.046 0.018 0.981 0.002

Also shown are the mean estimate ^

b and its standard deviation s

Fig. 3 Synthetic data histograms for 500,000 realizations for lines are the histograms, while the dashed (red) lines are the SB
magnitudes rounded to M = 0.1, b = 1.0, and classes ^ b 0:0 distribution. The vertical solid line indicates the true b-value, and
25 (left) and ^b 0:50 (right) wide. The thick continuous (blue) the vertical dashed line indicates the observed mean value
132 J Seismol (2017) 21:127135

Fig. 4 Synthetic data histograms for 500,000 realizations for for are the histograms, while the dashed (red) lines are the SB
magnitudes rounded to M = 0.1 classes ^ b 0:50 wide, and distribution. The vertical solid line indicates the true b-value, and the
b = 0.8 (left) and b = 1.2 (right). The thick continuous (blue) lines vertical dashed line indicates the observed mean value

mentioned before, the mean ^b values significantly over- realizations, so they should not be interpreted as figures
estimate the true b-values for samples below N 100. arrived to analytically, but as probable values that, how-
However, as shown on the right in Fig. 2, the situa- ever, do not change significantly between different
tion is quite different for ^b estimated from the same
From this table, it can be seen that the probabilities of
magnitudes as in the previous case, rounded now, as is
usual in practice, to one decimal place. The histograms getting a correct estimate of b = 1.00 with ^b 0:010
show gaps due to the fact that means from only a few precision are extremely low (<0.1) for samples of up to
rounded magnitudes cannot take all values over the 500 magnitudes and are low (<0.5) for samples as large
specified magnitude range; hence, possible magnitude as 10,000. Thus, results from studies claiming to
distiguish changes in b of 0.01 from less than about
means result in peaks for the corresponding ^b estimates.
20,000 events should be taken with a (large) grain of salt.
This appearance of preferred values is reduced as sam-
Of course, reducing the desired precision increases
ples get larger, but samples larger than 200 are needed
the probability of obtaining a correct, albeit less precise,
before the histogram resembles the SB distribution.
result. Figure 3 presents histograms for the same round-
Table 1 lists, for each N, the histogram mean and
standard deviation values, as well as the probabilities ed magnitude data set for ^b 0:025 (left) and ^b
      0:050 (right), and the corresponding probabilities are
Pr ^b b , Pr ^ b < b , and Pr ^b > b , denoted by listed in Table 1. For 0.025 precision, a reasonably good
Pr, Pr, and Pr+, respectively, for each given ^b; these agreement between histogram and the SB distribution is
probabilities are obtained from the Monte Carlo obtained for N 100, and estimating the correct b attains
J Seismol (2017) 21:127135 133

Table 2 Same as Table 1 for true b = 0.8

b = 0.8

^b 0:010 ^b 0:025 ^b 0:050

N s Pr Pr Pr+ Pr Pr Pr+ Pr Pr Pr+


10 0.885 0.310 0.457 0.024 0.519 0.434 0.046 0.519 0.412 0.092 0.496
25 0.831 0.172 0.459 0.029 0.511 0.445 0.058 0.497 0.416 0.117 0.467
50 0.814 0.117 0.469 0.042 0.489 0.448 0.084 0.468 0.398 0.176 0.426
100 0.806 0.081 0.471 0.052 0.477 0.435 0.125 0.440 0.372 0.247 0.381
200 0.802 0.057 0.470 0.069 0.461 0.414 0.177 0.409 0.331 0.340 0.329
500 0.799 0.036 0.463 0.112 0.425 0.380 0.273 0.348 0.250 0.518 0.148
1000 0.799 0.025 0.451 0.157 0.391 0.335 0.378 0.286 0.174 0.678 0.148
2000 0.798 0.018 0.433 0.220 0.346 0.276 0.515 0.209 0.093 0.838 0.068
5000 0.798 0.011 0.395 0.338 0.267 0.174 0.726 0.101 0.019 0.972 0.009
10,000 0.798 0.008 0.357 0.456 0.187 0.093 0.873 0.035 0.002 0.998 0.000

an even chance from samples of about 4000 events. For As can be seen from the histograms and the tables,
0.05 precision, 0.5 probability is attained for less than for small samples, correct estimation of b is easier and
1000 events, and there is a high probability of a correct the fit of the histograms to the SB distribution is better,
estimation from about 2000 events on. for small than for large b-values.
Since the magnitude population depends on the b- For small samples in all cases, the mean and the
value, results are slightly different for different values of mode in the histograms tell different stories: If a mea-
b; for considerations of space, we will only show here surement is repeated many (thousands of) times and b is
the histograms for ^b 0:050, for the representative estimated from the mean, the result would be
values b = 0.80 and b = 1.20 (Fig. 4), and list the overvalued; on the other hand, any single measurement
resulting probabilities in Tables 2 and 3, respectively. will probably result in an overvalued estimation.

Table 3 Same as table 1 for true b = 1.2

b = 1.2

^b 0:010 ^b 0:025 ^b 0:050

N s Pr Pr Pr+ Pr Pr Pr+ Pr Pr Pr+


10 1.321 0.458 0.456 0.000 0.544 0.456 0.035 0.509 0.456 0.035 0.509
25 1.241 0.255 0.474 0.022 0.504 0.474 0.022 0.504 0.452 0.066 0.482
50 1.216 0.174 0.492 0.016 0.492 0.476 0.048 0.476 0.445 0.110 0.445
100 1.204 0.120 0.496 0.033 0.471 0.473 0.078 0.449 0.430 0.165 0.405
200 1.198 0.084 0.496 0.048 0.454 0.467 0.118 0.415 0.405 0.233 0.362
500 1.195 0.053 0.513 0.075 0.412 0.454 0.187 0.359 0.363 0.358 0.279
1000 1.194 0.037 0.522 0.104 0.374 0.442 0.258 0.300 0.313 0.487 0.199
2000 1.193 0.026 0.536 0.143 0.321 0.422 0.350 0.230 0.249 0.636 0.115
5000 1.193 0.017 0.556 0.213 0.231 0.380 0.501 0.120 0.144 0.827 0.028
10,000 1.193 0.012 0.584 0.269 0.147 0.335 0.618 0.047 0.067 0.930 0.003
134 J Seismol (2017) 21:127135

4 Discussion an international review (vol. 4). American Geophysical

Union, Washington, p 566574
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In the results presented above, no correction was made magnitude grouped data. Bull Seism Soc Am 73:831851
for the fact that the mean from rounded magnitudes is Bhattacharya P, Majumdar R, Kayal J (2002) Fractal dimension and
not equal to the Btrue^ mean from unrounded magni- b-value mapping in northeast India. Curr Sci 82:14861491
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are not reliable; we will not reference here examples of doi: 10.1002/2014JB011510.
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whatever the method used for mapping (e.g., Wiemer Mrquez-Ramrez V. (2012) Anlisis multifractal de la
distribucin espacial de sismicidad y su posible aplicacin
and Wyss 2002; Kamer and Hiemer 2015), each b map premonitora. Exploracin de un posible mecanismo para la
should have a sister N map. fractalidad mediante modelado semiestocstico. PhD Thesis,
Programa de Posgrado en Ciencias de la Tierra, Centro de
Investigacin Cientfica y de Educacin Superior de
Acknowledgments We sincerely thank two anonymouis re-
Ensenada, Baja California, Mxico.
viewers for useful comments and suggestions. Thanks to Dr. J.L.
Mrquez-Ramrez V, Nava F, Ziga F (2015) Correcting the
Brioso for his guidance and patience. Many thanks to Jos Mojarro
Gutenberg-Richter b-value for effects of rounding and noise.
for technical support.
Earthq Sci 28:129134. doi:10.1007/s11589-015-0116-1
Montuori C, Falcone G, Murru M, Thurber C, Reyners M,
Eberhart-Phillips D (2010) Crustal heterogeneity highlighted
by spatial b-value map in the Wellington region of New
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