Internal Structure and Weakening Mechanisms of the San Andreas Fault

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Journal of Geophysical Research






American Geophysical Union

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New observations of the internal structure of the San Gabriel fault (SGF) are combined with previous characterizations of the Punchbowl fault (PF) to evaluate possible explanations for the low frictional strength and seismic characteristics of the San Andreas fault (SAF). The SGF and PF are ancient, large-displacement faults of the SAF system exhumed to depths of 2 to 5 km. These fault zones are internally zoned; the majority of slip was confined to the cores of principal faults, which typically consist of a narrow layer (less than tens of centimeters) of ultracataclasite within a zone of foliated cataclasite several meters thick. Each fault core is bounded by a zone of damaged host rock of the order of 100 m thick. Orientations of subsidiary faults and other fabric elements imply that (1) the maximum principal stress was oriented at large angles to principal fault planes, (2) strain was partitioned between simple shear in the fault cores and nearly fault-normal contraction in the damaged zones and surrounding host rock, and (3) the principal faults were weak. Microstructures and particle size distributions in the damaged zone of the SGF imply deformation was almost entirely cataclastic and can be modeled as constrained comminution. In contrast, cataclastic and fluid-assisted processes were significant in the cores of the faults as shown by pervasive syntectonic alteration of the host rock minerals to zeolites and clays and by folded, sheared, and attenuated cross-cutting veins of laumontite, albite, quartz, and calcite. Total volume of veins and neocrystallized material reaches 50% in the fault core, and vein structure implies episodic fracture and sealing with time-varying and anisotropic permeability in the fault zone. The structure of the ultracataclasite layer reflects extreme slip localization and probably repeated reworking by particulate flow at low effective stresses. The extreme slip localization reflects a mature internal fault structure resulting from a positive feedback between comminution and transformation weakening. The structural, mechanical, and hydrologic characteristics of the Punchbowl and San Gabriel faults support the model for a weak San Andreas based on inhomogeneous stress and elevated pore fluid pressures contained within the core of a seismogenic fault. Elevated fluid pressures could be repeatedly generated in the core of the fault by a combination of processes including coseismic dilatancy and creation of fracture permeability, fault-valve behavior to recharge the fault with fluid, post-seismic self-sealing of fracture networks to reduce permeability and trap fluids, and time-dependent compaction of the core to generate high pore pressure. The localized slip and fluid-saturated conditions are wholly compatible with additional dynamic weakening by thermal pressurization of fluids during large seismic slip events, which can help explain both the low average strength of the San Andreas and seismogenic characteristics such as large stress relief. In addition, such a dynamic weakening mechanism is expected only in mature fault zones and thus could help explain the apparent difference in strength of large-displacement faults from smaller-displacement, subsidiary seismogenic faults.