Geologic fault

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Geologic faults, fault lines or simply faults are planar rock fractures, which show evidence of relative movement. Large faults and the Earth's crust are the result of shear motion and active fault zones are the causal locations of most earthquakes. Earthquakes are caused by energy release during rapid slippage on the crust. The largest examples are at tectonic plate boundaries but many faults occur far from active plate boundaries. Since faults do not usually consist of a single, clean fracture, the term fault zone is used when referring to the zone of complex deformation that is associated with the fault plane.

The two sides of a non-vertical fault are called the hanging wall and footwall. By definition, the hanging wall occurs above the fault and the footwall occurs below the fault. This terminology comes from mining. When working a tabular ore body the miner stood with the footwall under his feet and with the hanging wall hanging above him.

Figure 1. Fault in shales near Adelaide, Australia
Figure 1. Fault in shales near Adelaide, Australia

Contents

[edit] Mechanics

Figure 2. The Junction fault, dividing the Allegheny Plateau and the true Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.
Figure 2. The Junction fault, dividing the Allegheny Plateau and the true Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.

The creation and behaviour of faults, in both an individual small fault and within the greater fault zones which define the tectonic plates, is controlled by the relative motion of rocks on either side of the fault surface.

Because of friction and the rigidity of the rock, the rocks cannot simply glide or flow past each other. Rather, stress builds up in rocks and when it reaches a level that exceeds the strain threshold, the accumulated potential energy is released as strain, which is focused into a plane along which relative motion is accommodated — the fault.

Strain is both accumulative and instantneous depending on the rheology of the rock; the ductile lower crust and mantle accumulates deformation gradually via shearing whereas the brittle upper crust reacts by fracture, or instantaneous stress release to cause motion along the fault. A fault in ductile rocks can also release instantaneously when the strain rate is too great. The energy released by instantaneous strain release is the cause of earthquakes, a common phenomenon along transform boundaries.

[edit] Microfracturing

Strain and stress cannot always be released in total within a rock mass either via faulting or shearing or folding; there is a gap between the finite strain ellipse and the shear point of rocks. This gap between a rock's ability to absorb stress and its propensity to release via strain is partially a factor of the elasticity of the rock and the confining pressures of a rock.

Microfracturing, or microseismicity, is a symptom which is recognised as being caused by rocks under strain, where small-scale failures, perhaps on areas the size of a dinner plate or a small area, release stress under high strain conditions. It is only when sufficient microfractures link up into a large slip surface that a large seismic event or earthquake can occur.

After a large earthquake, the majority of the stress is released and the frequency of microfracturing is exponentially lower.

This is being increasingly used to predict rock failures within mines and along the portions of faults within brittle rheological conditions. Similar behaviour is observed in the tremors preceding volcanic eruptions. Microfracturing is not a feasible mechanism for strain accommodation in ductile rocks (which tend to flow).

[edit] Slip, heave, throw

The sense of slip is defined by the relative movements of geological features present on either side of the fault plane and is a vector. The sense of slip defines the type of fault. This is distinct from the throw of the fault, which is the vertical offset. Heave is the measured horizontal offset of the fault.

The vector of slip can be qualitatively measured by fault bend folding, drag folding of strata on either side of the fault (figure 2), and the direction and magitude of heave and throw can be measured only by finding common intersection points on either side of the fault. In practise it is usually only possible to find the slip direction of faults, and an approximation of the heave and throw vector.

[edit] Fault types

Faults can be categorized into three groups based on the sense of slip. A fault where the main sense of movement (or slip) on the fault plane is vertical is known as a dip-slip fault. Where the main sense of slip is horizontal the fault is known as a transform (or strike-slip) fault. Oblique-slip faults have significant components of both strike and dip slip.

For all naming distinctions, it is the orientation of the net dip and sense of slip of the fault which must be considered, not the present-day orientation, which may have been altered by local or regional folding or tilting.

[edit] Dip-slip faults

Figure 3. Fault types. USGS image
Figure 3. Fault types. USGS image

Dip-slip faults include both normal and reverse. A normal fault occurs when the crust is extended. Alternatively such a fault can be called an extensional fault. The hanging wall moves downward, relative to the footwall. A downthrown block between two normal faults dipping towards each other is called a graben. An upthrown block between two normal faults dipping away from each other is called a horst. Low-angle normal faults with regional tectonic significance may be designated detachment faults.

A reverse fault is the opposite of a normal fault — the hanging wall moves up relative to the footwall. Reverse faults are indicative of shortening of the crust. The dip of a reverse fault is relatively steep, greater than 45°.

A thrust fault has the same sense of motion as a reverse fault, but with the dip of the fault plane at less than 45°. Thrust faults typically form ramps, flats and fault-bend (hanging wall and foot wall) folds. Thrust faults are responsible for forming nappes and klippen in the large thrust belts.

The fault plane is the plane that represents the fracture surface of a fault. Flat segments of thrust fault planes are known as flats, and inclined sections of the thrust are known as ramps. Typically thrust faults move within formations by forming flats, and climb up section with ramps.

Fault-bend folds are formed by movement of the hangingwall over a non-planar fault surface and are found associated with both extensional and thrust faults.

Figure 4. Cross-sectional illustration of normal and reverse dip-slip faults.
Figure 4. Cross-sectional illustration of normal and reverse dip-slip faults.

[edit] Strike-slip faults

The fault surface is usually near vertical and the footwall moves either left or right or laterally with very small vertical motion. Strike-slip faults with left-lateral motion are also known as sinistral faults. Those with right-lateral motion are also known as dextral faults. A special class of strike-slip faults is the transform faults which are a plate tectonics feature related to spreading centers such as mid-ocean ridges.

Figure 5. Schematic illustration of the two strike-slip fault types.
Figure 5. Schematic illustration of the two strike-slip fault types.

[edit] Oblique-slip faults

A fault which has a component of dip-slip and a component of strike-slip is termed an 'oblique-slip fault'. Nearly all faults will have some component of both dip-slip and strike-slip, so defining a fault as oblique requires both dip and strike components to be measurable and significant. Some oblique faults occur within transtensional and transpressional regimes, others occur where the direction of extension or shortening changes during the deformation but the earlier formed faults remain active.

[edit] Fault rock

All faults have a measurable thickness, made up of deformed rock that is characteristic of the level in the crust where the faulting happened, the rock types affected by the fault and the presence and nature of any mineralising fluids. Fault rocks are classified by their textures and the implied mechanism of deformation. A fault that passes through different levels of the lithosphere will have many different types of fault rock developed along its surface. Continued dip-slip displacement will tend to juxtapose fault rocks characteristic of different crustal levels ,with varying degrees of overprinting. This effect is particularly clear in the case of detachment faults and major thrust faults.

The main types of fault rock are:

  • Cataclasite - A fault rock which is cohesive with a poorly developed or absent planar fabric, or which is incohesive, characterised by generally angular clasts and rock fragments in a finer-grained matrix of similar composition.
  • Mylonite - A fault rock which is cohesive and characterized by a well developed planar fabric resulting from tectonic reduction of grain size, and commonly containing rounded porphyroclasts and rock fragments of similar composition to minerals in the matrix
  • Tectonic or Fault Breccia - A medium- to coarse-grained cataclasite containing >30% visible fragments.
  • Fault Gouge - An incohesive, clay-rich fine- to ultrafine-grained cataclasite, which may possess a planar fabric and containing <30% visible fragments. Rock clasts may be present
  • Pseudotachylite - Ultrafine-grained vitreous-looking material, usually black and flinty in appearance, occurring as thin planar veins, injection veins or as a matrix to pseudoconglomerates or breccias, which infills dilation fractures in the host rock.


[edit] Mitigation

Identifying of active faults contributes to define the seismic hazard of a region and is the basic of any mitigation study. Seismogenetic areas are characterised by tectonic lineations whose relative movement produces release of huge amount of energy which propagates in the shape of seismic vibration. For a specific seismogenetic area, inventory of historical earthquakes is of fundamental importance in order to probabilistically define the severity of the expected earthquake and its frequency .

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