International audiencePaleoseismology provides fundamental data for generalizing earthquake recurrence behavior, by revealing past surface-rupturing events. Determining the size of paleoseismic events is notoriously more challenging than their timing. Paleoearthquakes exposed in trenches are vaguely defined as large enough to break to the surface and often assumed to be similar in size. Here we show an example where the paleoseismic record includes events of both moderate and large magnitudes. At the Salt Lake site on the active left-lateral Haiyuan Fault, northern Tibetan Plateau, a high-resolution stratigraphic sequence recorded three and possibly four events since A.D. 1500, constrained by accelerator mass spectrometry 14 C dating. Historical accounts of earthquake damage in the study region suggest that several earthquakes exposed in the trenches markedly differ in magnitude. With the exception of the most recent M~8 earthquake that occurred in A.D. 1920, two earlier events, which occurred in A.D. 1760 (or 1709) and 1638, respectively, are considerably smaller, with magnitude M < 7 and more likely M~6 or less. Thus, this section of the Haiyuan Fault that broke during moderate-magnitude events failed again after a short interval during a large M w 7.8–8.3 earthquake, as part of a larger multisegment rupture. Our study shows that moderate-magnitude events can be preserved in the stratigraphy and exposed by paleoseismic trenching under ideal conditions, for instance, if sedimentation is fast enough and there is no hiatus in deposition. Eventually, the data presented add to the growing body of paleoseismic records containing events of different magnitudes with a large variability in rupture length and coseismic slip
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