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CSMIP 93-01

"Influence of Critical Moho Reflections on Strong Motion Attenuation in California"

by P. Somerville, N. Smith and D. Dreger

December 1993, 84 pp.

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A search has been made for the influence of critical reflections from the lower crust on the attenuation of peak acceleration with distance in individual California earthquakes. At close distances, the direct upgoing shear wave generates the largest ground motion amplitude. However, shear waves reflected from the lower crust become large in amplitude once the distance (and the angle of incidence) are large enough to become critical, that is, when all of the incident energy is reflected back to the surface. Strong ground motion amplitudes remained approximately uniform in the distance range of about 50 to 80 km during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and strong ground motion levels on rock and alluvium in the central San Francisco Bay area exceeded those of empirical attenuation relations. It has been suggested that these large ground motions were critical Moho reflections (SmS), and contributed about equally with impedance contrast amplification effects in generating destructive ground motions at soft soil sites in the central San Francisco Bay area.

The approach used in this study is to construct profiles of accelerograms having absolute times for each of several major California earthquakes. Evidence for the presence of critical reflections consists of large phases that arrive near the time predicted for critical reflections from lower crustal layers such as the Conrad and Moho, and have a horizontal phase velocity appropriate for critical reflections from the lower crust. For selected events, the interpretation of these profiles of recorded accelerograms is facilitated by synthetic seismograms that represent the effects of wave propagation in horizontally layered models of the earth’s crust. The effect of these reflected phases on the attenuation of peak acceleration with distance is then assessed.

We have analyzed profiles of accelerograms from seven large California earthquakes and several aftershocks. For the older events, the strong motion recordings did not have absolute time, and so it was difficult to identify critical reflections in these recordings. Also, for the larger events, the source duration was sufficiently long that it obscured the individual phases that we would like to identify. Nevertheless, we generally found evidence of critical reflections in large, late wave arrivals that may be SmS, and these arrivals were associated with a flattening of the empirical attenuation curve. Analysis of aftershock recordings, which have briefer source functions, provided clear evidence of the presence of these reflected phases.

These results suggest that critical reflections influence the attenuation of strong ground motion throughout California, and are already included to an extent in standard attenuation relations. However, the smoothly decaying functional form of most attenuation relations, while fitting observed strong motion data when averaged over many events, may not accurately describe the attenuation that is observed in a single event. The attenuation relation of the Loma Prieta earthquake is the most prominent demonstration of this. Since we do not expect crustal earthquakes in California to occur much deeper than 18 km, or the crustal thickness to be much less than 25 km, the Loma Prieta case may approximately represent an upper bound on the departure of the attenuation relation of an individual event from that of the larger strong motion data set in California. As a rule of thumb, the distance at which the attenuation curve for an individual earthquake begins to flatten can be estimated from the critical distance of the SmS phase, which is easily calculated from the crustal structure and the source depth.