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Heating and weakening of faults during earthquake slip

James R. Rice

Published May 2006, SCEC Contribution #918

Field observations of mature crustal faults suggest that slip in individual events occurs primarily within a thin shear zone, <1–5 mm, within a finely granulated, ultracataclastic fault core. Relevant weakening processes in large crustal events are therefore suggested to be thermal, and to involve the following: (1) thermal pressurization of pore fluid within and adjacent to the deforming fault core, which reduces the effective normal stress and hence also the shear strength for a given friction coefficient and (2) flash heating at highly stressed frictional microcontacts during rapid slip, which reduces the friction coefficient. (Macroscopic melting, or possibly gel formation in silica-rich lithologies, may become important too at large enough slip.) Theoretical modeling of mechanisms 1 and 2 is constrained with lab-determined hydrologic and poroelastic properties of fault core materials and lab friction studies at high slip rates. Predictions are that strength drop should often be nearly complete at large slip and that the onset of melting should be precluded over much (and, for small enough slip, all) of the seismogenic zone. A testable prediction is of the shear fracture energies that would be implied if actual earthquake ruptures were controlled by those thermal mechanisms. Seismic data have been compiled on the fracture energy of crustal events, including its variation with slip in an event. It is plausibly described by theoretical predictions based on the above mechanisms, within a considerable range of uncertainty of parameter choices, thus allowing the possibility that such thermal weakening prevails in the Earth.

Rice, J. R. (2006). Heating and weakening of faults during earthquake slip. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 111(B05311). doi: 10.1029/2005JB004006.