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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences

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Publication details for Professor Robert Holdsworth

Pozzi, Giacomo, De Paola, Nicola, Holdsworth, Robert E., Bowen, Leon, Nielsen, Stefan B. & Dempsey, Edward D. (2019). Coseismic ultramylonites: An investigation of nanoscale viscous flow and fault weakening during seismic slip. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 516: 164-175.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

Faults weaken during the propagation of earthquakes due to the onset of thermally-activated mechanisms, which vary depending on the rock type. Recent experimental work suggests that carbonate-hosted faults are lubricated by viscous flow in nano-granular aggregates having ultramylonitic textures. However, their frail nature has often hindered unbiased characterisation of the textures and deformation mechanisms operating at such extreme conditions (strain rates as high as 104), which remain so far poorly investigated and understood.

We explore the formation, evolution and deformation mechanisms of coseismic ultramylonites in carbonate-hosted faults generated during high velocity (1.4 m s−1), displacement-controlled shear experiments in a rotary apparatus. Microstructures were analysed using integrated SEM and TEM imaging while detailed crystallographic fabrics were investigated using the electron back-scattered diffraction (EBSD) technique.

Mechanical data show that the strength of the experimental fault decays dynamically with slip, according to a characteristic four stage evolution; each stage is associated with characteristic textures. Microstructural observations show that brittle processes dominate when the fault is strong (friction coefficients >0.6). Cataclasis, aided by twinning and crystal plasticity, operates forming an extremely comminuted shear band (mean grain size ∼200 nm). As the fault starts weakening, shear localises within a well-defined principal slip zone. Here, thermally-activated grain size sensitive (GSS) and insensitive (GSI) creep mechanisms compete with brittle processes in controlling fault strength. GSI mechanisms produce strong monoclinic crystallographic preferred orientations in the slip zone, while textures and crystallographic orientations in adjacent locations do not evolve from the previous deformation stage. By the end of the transient weakening stage, the slip zone has reached a steady state thickness (30 μm) and shows a nanogranular ultramylonitic texture. The intensity of the crystallographic preferred orientation in the coseismic ultramylonite is reduced compared to the previous stage, due to grainsize sensitive creep mechanisms becoming gradually more dominant. As the experimental fault re-strengthens, upon deceleration to arrest, the ultramylonite may be partially reworked by brittle deformation.

Our findings show that the crystallographic orientations of transient microstructures are preserved in the slip zone of coseismic ultramylonites and in narrow, adjacent deactivated layers, where mirror-like surfaces are located. This shows that EBSD techniques can usefully be employed to determine the deformation mechanisms of coseismic ultramylonites and their evolution during earthquake slip in both experimental and, potentially, natural faults.