A simple technique is developed for determining the rupture duration and stress drop of earthquakes between magnitudes 3.5 and 4.0 using the time between the P-wave onset and the first zero crossing (τ1/2) on seismograms from local seismic networks. This method is applied to 10 main shocks in southern California to investigate regional variations in stress drop. The initial pulse widths of 65 foreshocks or aftershocks of these events were measured. Values of τ1/2 for small earthquakes below about magnitude 2.2 are generally observed to remain constant with decreasing magnitude in four sequences studied. The relative pulse width of a particular main shock (M ≧ 3.5) at a given station is found to be correlated with the relative pulse width of its aftershocks recorded at that station. These observations are interpreted to signify that the waveforms of these small events (M ≦ 2.2) are essentially the impulse response of the path between the source and receiver. Values of τ1/2 determined from small foreshocks and aftershocks are, therefore, subtracted (in effect deconvolved) from those of each main shock to obtain an estimate of the rupture duration of the main shock which is corrected for path effects.

Significant variations in rupture duration and stress drop are observed for the main shocks studied. Aftershock locations and azimuthal variations in τ1/2 both indicate that the rupture zone of one earthquake expanded unilaterally. A factor of 10 variation in stress drop is calculated for two adjacent events of similar seismic moments occurring 1 hr apart on the San Jacinto fault system. The first event in this pair had the highest stress drop of the events studied (860 bars) and was followed within 8 months by a magnitude 5.5 earthquake 2 km away.

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