Lasrick sends this report from Nature
"The devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan shocked researchers who did not expect that the seismic fault involved could release so much energy. Now the world's deepest-drilling oceanographic ship has been able to pin down the odd geology that made this disaster so horrific. The fault turns out to be unusually thin and weak, the researchers report in Science this week1–3. The results will help to pin down whether other offshore faults around the world are capable of triggering the same scale of disaster. ... The coring revealed a very thin clay layer, about 5 meters thick, separating the two sliding tectonic plates (abstract). 'That’s just weird,' says Emily Brodsky of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), who is an author on all three Science papers this week. 'Usually it’s tens of meters or more.' Lab tests confirmed that this wet clay layer is extremely slippery, and gets even more so under stress (abstract). As sliding creates friction and heat, water in the clay gets pressurized and pushes up against the impermeable rock around it. That 'jacks open the fault” says Brodsky, allowing it to slip even more. The temperature sensors found that more than a year after the quake, the fault was still up to 0.31 C warmer than its surroundings (abstract). From this they could extrapolate how much heat was generated from friction during the sliding event. Their calculations confirmed the very low friction of the 5-meter-thick clay layer."