Segmentation can influence the extent of earthquake rupture and event magnitude1: large megathrust earthquakes result from total rupture of relatively continuous segments of the subduction interface2, 3, 4, 5. Segmentation is attributed to variations in the frictional properties of the seismogenic zone or to topographic features on the down-going plate6, 7, 8, 9. Structures in the overriding plate may also influence segmentation10, 11, 12, 13, but their importance has been dismissed. Here, we investigate the links between interface segmentation at the North Chile seismic gap14 and a crustal-scale fault structure in the overriding plate that forms a coastal scarp of about 1 km in height10, 15. We use satellite interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) and Global Positioning System (GPS) data to measure interseismic surface deformation between 2003 and 2009 and compare the deformation with rupture extent during well-documented earthquakes5, 16, 17, 18. From these data we infer the degree of coupling and segmentation at depth. We find that along a 500-km-long segment, the base of the strongly coupled seismogenic zone correlates with the line of the surface coastal scarp and follows the outline of the Mejillones Peninsula. This correlation implies that large-scale structures in the overriding plate can influence the frictional properties of the seismogenic zone at depth. We therefore suggest that the occurrence of megathrust earthquakes in northern Chile is controlled by the surface structures that build Andean topography.
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