Hematite (U-Th)/He thermochronometry detects asperity flash heating during laboratory earthquakes

Gabriele Calzolari, Alexis K. Ault, Greg Hirth, & Robert McDermott

Published March 18, 2020, SCEC Contribution #10102

Evidence for coseismic temperature rise that induces dynamic weakening is challenging to directly observe and quantify in natural and experimental fault rocks. Hematite (U-Th)/He (hematite He) thermochronometry may serve as a fault-slip thermometer, sensitive to transient high temperatures associated with earthquakes. We test this hypothesis with hematite deformation experiments at seismic slip rates, using a rotary-shear geometry with an annular ring of silicon carbide (SiC) sliding against a specular hematite slab. Hematite is characterized before and after sliding via textural and hematite He analyses to quantify He loss over variable experimental conditions. Experiments yield slip surfaces localized in an ∼5–30-μm-thick layer of hematite gouge with <300-µm-diameter fault mirror (FM) zones made of sintered nanoparticles. Hematite He analyses of undeformed starting material are compared with those of FM and gouge run products from high-slip-velocity experiments, showing >71% ± 1% (1σ) and 18% ± 3% He loss, respectively. Documented He loss requires short-duration, high temperatures during slip. The spatial heterogeneity and enhanced He loss from FM zones are consistent with asperity flash heating (AFH). Asperities >200–300 μm in diameter, producing temperatures >900 °C for ∼1 ms, can explain observed He loss. Results provide new empirical evidence describing AFH and the role of coseismic temperature rise in FM formation. Hematite He thermochronometry can detect AFH and thus seismicity on natural FMs and other thin slip surfaces in the upper seismogenic zone of Earth’s crust.

Calzolari, G., Ault, A. K., Hirth, G., & McDermott, R. (2020). Hematite (U-Th)/He thermochronometry detects asperity flash heating during laboratory earthquakes. Geology, 48, 514-518. doi: 10.1130/G46965.1.