Low-angle normal faults have been a puzzle since they were first discovered because they appear to slip while at a high angle to the maximum compressive stress, which should be an unfavorable orientation. Some strike-slip faults, such as the San Andreas, share this enigmatic trait. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the apparent mechanical weakness of these unfavorably oriented faults: (1) the stress field rotates as low-angle normal faults are approached; (2) low-angle normal faults are weak because inherently weak materials or well-developed flow fabrics exist in the fault core; (3) low-angle normal faults are weak due to lowering of the effective normal stress by high pore fluid pressure. This project is testing these hypotheses through a combination of structural, petrographic, and fluid inclusion studies of fault rocks formed around the Whipple and west Salton low-angle normal faults in southern California. Structural studies combine outcrop-scale data on shear and tensile fractures with microscopic data on tensile microcracks and fluid-inclusion arrays to define the orientation of the paleostress field, and its temporal and spatial variations. Microthermometry of oriented fluid inclusion arrays constrain the pressure and temperature conditions of fluid entrapment during brecciation and subsequent fracturing. Possible fluid sources are evaluated using exploratory whole-rock and stable-isotope data. Both faults have quartzofeldspathic footwalls, display evidence of paleoseismicity, and have well-constrained slip and footwall-cooling histories. This project focuses on the upper footwalls where macroscale structural rotations relative to the low-angle normal faults are known to be minor. The two faults are complementary because they allow study of slip gradients (finite displacements ranging from 5-50 km) and allow comparison of fault-zone rocks and structure developed at different crustal levels, from the base of the seismogenic zone for the Whipple detachment to in and above the upper seismogenic zone for the west Salton detachment.

Low-angle normal faults (i.e., extensional faults that slip at angles of less than 30 degrees to the earth?s surface) have economic and societal relevance because (a) they host ore deposits and control regions in which petroleum accumulates, and (b) they pose a potential seismic risk to communities like Salt Lake City, Utah, and Mexicali, Baja California. Because of their apparently anomalous orientation with respect to major stresses in the earth, the mechanical conditions under which they slip are not well understood. As a result, their seismic hazards are also not well understood. Major strike-slip faults, such as the San Andreas fault, pose a clear seismic threat to many large population centers and are the targets of several efforts (e.g., San Andreas drilling project) to characterize the nature of the fault zone rocks, fluids within/near the fault zones, and nearby stress orientations. This study will provide a complementary data set from another class of faults that can ultimately be combined with data from the San Andreas and other faults to (1) document fault rock features and histories that are unique to different types of major faults, and (2) gain clearer understanding of earthquake mechanics in different settings in the crust.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
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David Fountain
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University of New Mexico
United States
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