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Department of Earth Sciences


People - Facilities - Research Projects - Selected Publications

The Rock mechanics Laboratory was established in the Earth Sciences Department in December 2010 and it is managed by Prof. Bob Holdsworth and Dr. Nicola De Paola.


Jump to: Research Projects - Selected Publications - Facilities

Prof. Bob Holdsworth

Professor in Structural Geology

Bob’s main research interests lie in the study of the structure, mechanics and transport properties of exhumed fault zones, with specific interests in fault weakening processes at different crustal depths. He is particularly interested in the role played by pre-existing structures in controlling crustal deformation patterns at all scales, and his international expertise in this area has led to a significant amount of industry funding for his research. Together with Nicola De Paola, he has recently established the Rock Mechanics Laboratory in the Earth Sciences Department at Durham University, which is equipped with a low to high velocity rotary shear apparatus.

Dr. Eddie Dempsey

University Teaching Fellow

Eddie’ main research interests are the structural and kinematic evolution of fault zones from a macro to microstructural scale and how this evolution is controlled by the regional kinematics, pre-existing structural anisotropy and physical properties of fault rocks. He is presently studying: 1) The structural evolution of low angle normal faulting in the USA and Italy. 2) The role of fault rock /fluid interactions in the Gole Larghe Fault Zone within the Adamello Pluton, N. Italy, in collaboration with Giulio Di Torro at the University of Padova, Italy. Eddie is also working with Nicola De Paola of the Rock Mechanics Laboratory, Durham, in characterising carbonate fault rocks from the Central Apennines, Italy. Other areas of interest for Eddie are the microstructural characteristics of the San Andreas Fault Zone using samples from the SAFOD core archive and the kinematics and structural evolution of the Alpine Fault Zone in New Zealand.

Rachael Bullock

PhD Student

Supervisors: Dr. N. De Paola; Co-Supervisors: Prof. R.E. Holdsworth and Prof. S. Marco (Tel-Aviv University)

Constraining co-seismic slip from earthquake palaeo-records in shallow unconsolidated sediments

Rachael’s project integrates field studies, mineralogical observations and laboratory experiment data carried out on rock samples from fault zones developed in unconsolidated lacustrine shallow sediments, which have hosted prehistoric earthquake-related deformations in the tectonically active area of the Dead Sea Fault, Israel. The main scientific objective of Rachael’s project is to assess whether it is possible to discriminate between co-seismic and afterslip deformation using geological records of ancient earthquake fault slip events preserved in unconsolidated sediments.

Chris Harbord

PhD Student

Supervisors: Dr. Stefan Nielsen, Dr. Nicola DePaola, Prof. Bob Holdsworth & Dr Sergio Vinciguerra (BGS/University of Leicester)

Laboratory Earthquakes

Chris is conducting his PhD at Durham Earth Sciences and using the RML facilities, under supervision if S. Nielsen, N. de Paola and B. Holdsworth. His aim is to investigate earthquake rupture dynamics in crustal rocks utilising a high pressure triaxial rig in the rock mechanics laboratory. In order to do this he is contributing to the design and development of newmachine parts and developing high-frequency emission monitoring. This will provide new insights on the very fast and small-scale processes during the initiation and propagation of rupture. This work will build on pre-exisitng studies of rupture dynamics in photoelastic materials, to create a more realistic knowledge of rupture processes under geological conditions.

Dr. Nicola De Paola

Senior Lecturer in Structural Geology

Nicola’s main research interests lie in the study of the structure, mechanics and transport properties of exhumed fault zones, as these represent some of the main controls on the seismogenic processes that occur in the upper crust. His multidisciplinary research has focussed to date on the deformation processes, internal architecture, fluid flow and mechanical properties of active fault zones. Together with Bob Holdsworth he has recently established the Rock Mechanics Laboratory in the Earth Sciences Department at Durham University, which is equipped with a low to high velocity rotary shear apparatus.

Dr. Stefan Nielsen


Stefan is an Earth scientist with expertise in the area of earthquake source mechanics. Because friction and rupture dynamics during earthquakes are poorly resolved by seismological data and modeling, S.N. has been developing in parallel experimental, theoretical and field approaches. His experiments allow to reproduce dynamic rupture propagation (tiny earthquakes) in the laboratory, measure friction at high and low slip velocities, using rotary shear machines and triaxial machines and measuring fracture energy under various conditions. His contributions to the theoretical seismology include the mathematical models which predict the formation of self-healing rupture pulses and the behavior of melt lubrication on seismic faults. His field work focussed on exhumed fossil faults, where pseudotachylyte (solidified product of coseismic frictional melt) and secondary fractures provide signatures and a gauges of dynamic rupture properties. S.N. is currently Reader at Durham University (UK), where he teaches Physics, Geophysics and Geomechanics, incorporating experimental lab practice in his lectures.

Sian Evans

PhD Student

Supervisors: Bob Holdsworth, Nicola De Paola, Shmulik Marco (Tel Aviv University), and Rami Weinberger (Geological Survey of Israel)

Deformation processes along continental transform faults: the southern Dead Sea Fault System, Israel

Sian's project seeks to ascertain how basement anisotropy, fault rock mechanics and fluid flow may influence the segmentation and distribution of displacement within continental strike-slip systems. It will provide insights into the maturation of large fault zones and will help better predict seismic hazards and risks in such regions.

Thomas Snell

PhD Student

Supervisors: Stefan Nielsen, Nicola DePaola, Jeroen van Hunen

Modelling fluid overpressure and earthquake nucliation within shale fault zones

Understanding how the development of overpressured fluid patches along shale fault zones can act as nucleation sites and trigger earthquakes. The main aim of the project is to deliver a set of numerical models where the strength evolution of shale fracture/fault patterns is predicted as a function of the non-linear variation of their transport properties and pore fluid pressures, assuming natural fracture/fault patterns geometries. Predictions on whether fluid induced fracturing/failure can lead to earthquake nucleation or stable sliding creep conditions.


Jump to: People - Research Projects - Selected Publications



Low to High Velocity Rotary Shear Apparatus (LHVR)

The LHVRS apparatus can measure the evolution of the frictional properties of both granular and solid rock materials at normal stresses up to 20 MPa and slip rates ranging from 1 mm/year to 1 m/s. By covering this range of velocities, the apparatus allows the laboratory investigation of poorly understood deformation processes occurring along active faults including both creeping movements and seismic slip.





Triaxial Loading Apparatus with Fluid Flow (TFF)

The TFF apparatus allows the quantitative investigation of the fracturing processes of rocks during deformation under upper crustal pressure and temperature conditions (up to 10km depth), and how these processes can affect the evolution of the rock fluid transport properties. It also allows the quantitative estimation of the transport properties of rocks (both intact and granular) under evolving conditions of pore fluid pressure and in the presence of reactive fluids (i.e. carbon dioxide).

The Rock Mechanics Laboratory also contains extensive facilities for Rock Preparation, including a Core Drill, Cylindrical Grinder, and Rock Crushing Tools.

Research Projects

Jump to: Top - People - Facilities - Selected Publications

 The Rock Mechanics Laboratory plays a key role in a number of the current and recent large Research Projects in the Department of Earth Sciences:

Note: *Starred hyperlinks link to external web pages.


Earthquake hazard from 36Cl exposure dating of elapsed time and Coulomb stress transfer*

NERC Standard Grant

Ken McCaffrey - Gerald Roberts, (UCL), Richard Phillips, (Leeds) & John McCloskey (Ulster)


When an earthquake ruptures an active fault, stress is transferred onto neighbouring active faults and may cause it to rupture in a subsequent earthquake. However, earthquakes will only trigger subsequent earthquakes if the neighbouring fault(s) are already close to failure due to long-term loading from motions in the crust or between plates. Identification of such faults by laser scanning and knowledge of the fault loading history from cosmogenic dating and Coulomb stress modelling will be developed to inform local populations and civil protection agencies in advance of a future earthquake allowing location-prioritised mitigation efforts

Fault lubrication during earthquake propagation in thermally unstable rocks*

NERC Standard Grant ~£560k

Nicola De Paola - Prof. R.E. Holdsworth - Dr. E. Llewellin.


The main aim of the project is to investigate whether chemical and physical reactions triggered by frictional heating (thermal decomposition of fault rock minerals) in carbonate fault zones can make faults extremely weak and favour the propagation of earthquake ruptures. This is a multidisciplinary research program where mechanical, mineralogical and microstructural data, obtained from both field and laboratory studies, will be integrated.

 Ms. Rachael Bullock (PhD Student, NERC funding): “Constraining co-seismic slip from earthquake palaeo-records in shallow unconsolidated sediments”.

Ms. Sian Evans (PhD Student, NERC CASE):“Deformation processes along continental transform faults: the southern Dead Sea Fault System, Israel” NERC CASE award jointly supported by the Geological Survey of Israel. 



Past Projects:


1) Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2009-11): “Frictional slip localisation along weak faults”.

Selected Publications

Jump to: Top - People - Facilities - Research Projects

Harbord, C.W.A., Nielsen, S.B., De Paola, N. & Holdsworth, R.E. 2017. Earthquake nucleation on rough faults. Geology, 45, doi:10.1130/G39181.1

De Paola, N., Hirose, T., Mitchell, T., Di Toro, G., Viti, C., Shimamoto, T., 2011. Fault lubrication and earthquake propagation in thermally unstable rocks. Geology 39, 35-38.

Di Toro, G., Han, R., Hirose, T., De Paola, N., Nielsen, N., Mizoguchi, K., Ferri, F., Cocco, M. & Shimamoto, T. 2011. Fault lubrication during earthquakes. Nature 471(7339), 494-498.

I. Faoro, D. Elsworth C. Marone (2010), Permeability evolution during dynamic stressing of dual permeability media, J. Geophys. Res., In press.

Holdsworth, R.E., van Diggelen, E.W.E., Spiers, C.J., de Bresser, J.H.P., Walker, R.J., Bowen, L. 2011. Fault rocks from the SAFOD core samples: Implications for weakening at shallow depths along the San Andreas Fault, California. Journal of Structural Geology, 33, 132-144.

Smith, S.A.F., Holdsworth, R.E., Collettini, R.E. 2011. Interactions between low-angle normal faults and plutonism in the upper crust: Insights from the Island of Elba, Italy. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 123; p. 329–346

De Paola, N., Chiodini, G., Hirose, T., Cardellini, C., Caliro, S. & Shimamoto, T. 2011. The geochemical signature caused by earthquake propagation in carbonate-hosted faults. Earth and Planetary Science Letters