Research ArticleGEOPHYSICS

Seismic potential of weak, near-surface faults revealed at plate tectonic slip rates

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Science Advances  22 Nov 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 11, e1701269
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701269

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The near-surface areas of major faults commonly contain weak, phyllosilicate minerals, which, based on laboratory friction measurements, are assumed to creep stably. However, it is now known that shallow faults can experience tens of meters of earthquake slip and also host slow and transient slip events. Laboratory experiments are generally performed at least two orders of magnitude faster than plate tectonic speeds, which are the natural driving conditions for major faults; the absence of experimental data for natural driving rates represents a critical knowledge gap. We use laboratory friction experiments on natural fault zone samples at driving rates of centimeters per year to demonstrate that there is abundant evidence of unstable slip behavior that was not previously predicted. Specifically, weak clay-rich fault samples generate slow slip events (SSEs) and have frictional properties favorable for earthquake rupture. Our work explains growing field observations of shallow SSE and surface-breaking earthquake slip, and predicts that such phenomena should be more widely expected.

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