Can we understand structural and tectonic processes and their products without appeal to a complete mechanics?

Raymond C. Fletcher, David D. Pollard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Our answer is 'no'. Throughout the 20th century, the majority of structural geologists have worked with a conceptual basis that includes only isolated fragments of continuum mechanics (e.g. strain analysis, constitutive laws, force balance, Mohr's circles, or conservation of volume), and this has resulted in the proliferation of ad hoc models of structural and tectonic processes and their products. Furthermore, at a more abstract level, the possibility that mechanical quantities of interest (e.g. displacement, velocity, stress, or temperature) vary continuously in the spatial coordinates and time is largely ignored. These two conceptual oversights are related: without the mathematical concept of partial differentiation (as in the biharmonic equation of elasticity theory that brings strain compatability, Hooke's law, and stress equilibrium together) these spatial and temporal variations cannot be accounted for explicitly. Thus, the mechanical concept of boundary- and initial-value problems, formulated in terms of partial differential equations, has not been adopted as a necessary tool by most practitioners of structural geology and tectonics. We illustrate our case with two examples: the development of chevron folds and of echelon veins. We show how the ad hoc approach, while successful at one level, lacks predictive capability and possesses a low degree of refutability. Further progress in understanding these (and other) products of structural and tectonic processes can be made through an integrative approach using a complete and self-consistent mechanics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1071-1088
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Structural Geology
Issue number8-9
StatePublished - Aug 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geology


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