Mechanics and Seismogenic Potential of Low Angle Normal Faults: A Field and Laboratory Investigation

Project: Research project

Project Details


This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5).

Understanding the factors controlling the stress state and nature of slip on major tectonic faults is a fundamental problem in earthquake physics and fault mechanics. In particular, many major fault zones, including the San Andreas Fault, several well-studied subduction zone plate boundaries, and low angle normal faults appear to slip under anomalously low shear stresses (i.e., they are mechanically weak). Recent studies also provide conflicting views about the potential for seismic slip on modern low angle normal faults, which is of importance for earthquake hazard assessment. Much recent and ongoing work has focused on identifying the mechanisms causing fault weakness through sampling and instrumentation of active fault zones by drilling. Another approach is to study well-exposed exhumed faults that formed earlier in Earth's history, and which serve as analogs for active faults. This project focuses on low angle normal faults that formed in response to the regional crustal extension during the Miocene epoch (24 to 6 million years ago) in the area that is now the Mojave Desert of California and Arizona. These low angle normal faults dip shallowly, have accommodated tens of kilometers of slip, and appear to have slipped while severely misoriented, with the (vertical) maximum principal stress nearly perpendicular to the fault surface. Subsequent erosion has exhumed the fault zones from depths of 2-10 km, and has provided access to excellent exposures. This research project will characterize the frictional properties and stability of gouge and fault rock from these exhumed faults using a pressure vessel in the rock mechanics laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, in order to address two outstanding questions about low angle normal faults that bear on the underlying causes of fault weakness in general: (1) What is the absolute strength of natural fault gouge from low angle normal faults, and is the presence of weak clay minerals sufficient to explain their apparent mechanical weakness?; and (2) Are the frictional properties of the fault rock consistent with the possibility of earthquake nucleation on these structures? A particular feature of this work is the ability to test samples of intact fault gouge, which preserve their distinctive fabric and are likely to play a key role in governing their frictional behavior.

Earthquakes pose a major hazard to populated regions in much of the United States and globally. Both the overall mechanical strength and the nature of slip (whether it occurs via creep or by episodic failure in earthquakes) on major tectonic faults depend, to a large extent, on the physical properties of rock and gouge within these fault zones. Many major fault zones at plate tectonic boundaries appear to slip under anomalously low stresses, implying that they are mechanically weak. Low angle normal faults are one class of faults that exhibit this apparent mechanical weakness, and which are common throughout the southwestern United States. The potential for earthquakes on these faults is also a subject of significant debate, owing mainly to overall low slip rates and potentially long recurrence times that make hazard difficult to assess. This study will investigate the factors that control the strength and slip behavior of low angle normal faults through field mapping, sampling, and detailed laboratory study of fault material. The project will provide new insight into the mechanics of these structures, and will shed light on the mechanical behavior and stability of mechanically weak faults in general.

Effective start/end date8/1/097/31/11


  • National Science Foundation: $186,048.00


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