- is the number of events having a magnitude
- and are constants
The constant b is typically equal to 1.0 in seismically active regions. This means that for every magnitude 4.0 event there will be 10 magnitude 3.0 quakes and 100 magnitude 2.0 quakes. There is some variation with b-values in the range 0.5 to 1.5 depending on the tectonic environment of the region. A notable exception is during earthquake swarms when the b-value can become as high as 2.5 indicating an even larger proportion of small quakes to large ones.
There is debate concerning the interpretation of some observed spatial and temporal variations of b-values. The most frequently cited factors to explain these variations are: the stress applied to the material, the depth, the focal mechanism, the strength heterogeneity of the material, and the proximity of macro-failure. The b-value decrease observed prior to the failure of samples deformed in the laboratory has led to the suggestion that this is a precursor to major macro-failure. Statistical physics provides a theoretical framework for explaining both the steadiness of the Gutenberg–Richter law for large catalogs and its evolution when the macro-failure is approached, but application to earthquake forecasting is currently out of reach. Alternatively, a b-value significantly different from 1.0 may suggest a problem with the data set; e.g. it is incomplete or contains errors in calculating magnitude.
There is a tendency for the b-value to decrease for smaller magnitude events. This effect is described as "roll-off" of the b-value, a description due to the plot of the logarithmic version of the GR law becoming flatter at the low magnitude end of the plot. Data which is perfectly following the GR law plots to a straight line. Formerly, this was taken as an indicator of incompleteness of the data set. That is, it was assumed that many low-magnitude earthquakes are missed because fewer stations detect and record them. However, some modern models of earthquake dynamics have roll-off as a natural consequence of the model without the need for the feature to be inserted arbitrarily.
The a-value is of less scientific interest and simply indicates the total seismicity rate of the region. This is more easily seen when the GR law is expressed in terms of the total number of events:
the total number of events.
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