Fault (geology)

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Satellite image of the Piqiang Fault, a northwest trending left-lateral strike-slip fault in the Taklamakan Desert south of the Tien Shan Mountains, China (40.3degN, 77.7degE) Piqiang Fault, China detail.jpg
Satellite image of the Piqiang Fault, a northwest trending left-lateral strike-slip fault in the Taklamakan Desert south of the Tien Shan Mountains, China (40.3°N, 77.7°E)

In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock across which there has been significant displacement as a result of rock-mass movement. Large faults within the Earth's crust result from the action of plate tectonic forces, with the largest forming the boundaries between the plates, such as subduction zones or transform faults [1] . Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes.


A fault plane is the plane that represents the fracture surface of a fault. A fault trace or fault line is a place where the fault can be seen or mapped on the surface. A fault trace is also the line commonly plotted on geologic maps to represent a fault. [2] [3]

Since faults do not usually consist of a single, clean fracture, geologists use the term fault zone when referring to the zone of complex deformation associated with the fault plane.

Mechanisms of faulting

Normal fault in La Herradura Formation, Morro Solar, Peru. The light layer of rock shows the displacement. A second normal fault is at the right. Falla normal Morro Solar Peru.jpg
Normal fault in La Herradura Formation, Morro Solar, Peru. The light layer of rock shows the displacement. A second normal fault is at the right.

Owing to friction and the rigidity of the constituent rocks, the two sides of a fault cannot always glide or flow past each other easily, and so occasionally all movement stops. The regions of higher friction along a fault plane, where it becomes locked, are called asperities . Stress builds up when a fault is locked, and when it reaches a level that exceeds the strength threshold, the fault ruptures and the accumulated strain energy is released in part as seismic waves, forming an earthquake.

Strain occurs accumulatively or instantaneously, depending on the liquid state of the rock; the ductile lower crust and mantle accumulate deformation gradually via shearing, whereas the brittle upper crust reacts by fracture – instantaneous stress release – resulting in motion along the fault. A fault in ductile rocks can also release instantaneously when the strain rate is too great.

Slip, heave, throw

A fault in Morocco.The fault plane is the steeply leftward-dipping line in the centre of the photo, which is the plane along which the rock layers to the left have slipped downwards, relative to the layers to the right of the fault. Fault in Seppap Gorge Morocco.jpg
A fault in Morocco.The fault plane is the steeply leftward-dipping line in the centre of the photo, which is the plane along which the rock layers to the left have slipped downwards, relative to the layers to the right of the fault.

Slip is defined as the relative movement of geological features present on either side of a fault plane. A fault's sense of slip is defined as the relative motion of the rock on each side of the fault with respect to the other side. [4] In measuring the horizontal or vertical separation, the throw of the fault is the vertical component of the separation and the heave of the fault is the horizontal component, as in "Throw up and heave out". [5]

Microfault showing a piercing point (the coin's diameter is 18 mm) Microfault.jpg
Microfault showing a piercing point (the coin's diameter is 18 mm)

The vector of slip can be qualitatively assessed by studying any drag folding of strata,[ clarification needed ] which may be visible on either side of the fault; the direction and magnitude of heave and throw can be measured only by finding common intersection points on either side of the fault (called a piercing point). In practice, it is usually only possible to find the slip direction of faults, and an approximation of the heave and throw vector.

Hanging wall and footwall

The two sides of a non-vertical fault are known as the hanging wall and footwall. The hanging wall occurs above the fault plane and the footwall occurs below it. [6] This terminology comes from mining: when working a tabular ore body, the miner stood with the footwall under his feet and with the hanging wall above him. [7]

Fault types

Based on the direction of slip, faults can be categorized as:

Strike-slip faults

Schematic illustration of the two strike-slip fault types Strike slip fault.png
Schematic illustration of the two strike-slip fault types

In a strike-slip fault (also known as a wrench fault, tear fault or transcurrent fault), [8] the fault surface (plane) is usually near vertical, and the footwall moves laterally either left or right with very little vertical motion. Strike-slip faults with left-lateral motion are also known as sinistral faults, and those with right-lateral motion as dextral faults. [9] Each is defined by the direction of movement of the ground as would be seen by an observer on the opposite side of the fault.

A special class of strike-slip fault is the transform fault, when it forms a plate boundary. This class is related to an offset in a spreading center, such as a mid-ocean ridge, or, less common, within continental lithosphere, such as the Dead Sea Transform in the Middle East or the Alpine Fault in New Zealand. Transform faults are also referred to as "conservative" plate boundaries, inasmuch as lithosphere is neither created nor destroyed.

Dip-slip faults

Normal faults in Spain, between which rock layers have slipped downwards (at photo's centre) Normal faults - Arganda del Rey, Madrid, Spain.JPG
Normal faults in Spain, between which rock layers have slipped downwards (at photo's centre)

Dip-slip faults can be either normal ("extensional") or reverse.

Cross-sectional illustration of normal and reverse dip-slip faults Nor rev.png
Cross-sectional illustration of normal and reverse dip-slip faults

In a normal fault, the hanging wall moves downward, relative to the footwall. A downthrown block between two normal faults dipping towards each other is a graben. An upthrown block between two normal faults dipping away from each other is a horst. Low-angle normal faults with regional tectonic significance may be designated detachment faults.

A reverse fault is the opposite of a normal fault—the hanging wall moves up relative to the footwall. Reverse faults indicate compressive shortening of the crust. The dip of a reverse fault is relatively steep, greater than 45°. The terminology of "normal" and "reverse" comes from coal-mining in England, where normal faults are the most common. [10]

A thrust fault has the same sense of motion as a reverse fault, but with the dip of the fault plane at less than 45°. [11] [12] Thrust faults typically form ramps, flats and fault-bend (hanging wall and footwall) folds.

Thrust with fault bend fold.svg

Flat segments of thrust fault planes are known as flats, and inclined sections of the thrust are known as ramps. Typically, thrust faults move within formations by forming flats and climb up sections with ramps.

Fault-bend folds are formed by movement of the hanging wall over a non-planar fault surface and are found associated with both extensional and thrust faults.

Faults may be reactivated at a later time with the movement in the opposite direction to the original movement (fault inversion). A normal fault may therefore become a reverse fault and vice versa.

Thrust faults form nappes and klippen in the large thrust belts. Subduction zones are a special class of thrusts that form the largest faults on Earth and give rise to the largest earthquakes.

Oblique-slip faults

Oblique-slip fault Oblique slip fault.jpg
Oblique-slip fault

A fault which has a component of dip-slip and a component of strike-slip is termed an oblique-slip fault. Nearly all faults have some component of both dip-slip and strike-slip; hence, defining a fault as oblique requires both dip and strike components to be measurable and significant. Some oblique faults occur within transtensional and transpressional regimes, and others occur where the direction of extension or shortening changes during the deformation but the earlier formed faults remain active.

The hade angle is defined as the complement of the dip angle; it is the angle between the fault plane and a vertical plane that strikes parallel to the fault.

Listric fault

Listric fault (red line) Rollover.png
Listric fault (red line)

Listric faults are similar to normal faults but the fault plane curves, the dip being steeper near the surface, then shallower with increased depth. The dip may flatten into a sub-horizontal décollement, resulting in horizontal slip on a horizontal plane. The illustration shows slumping of the hanging wall along a listric fault. Where the hanging wall is absent (such as on a cliff) the footwall may slump in a manner that creates multiple listric faults.

Ring fault

Ring faults, also known as caldera faults, are faults that occur within collapsed volcanic calderas [13] and the sites of bolide strikes, such as the Chesapeake Bay impact crater. Ring faults are result of a series of overlapping normal faults, forming a circular outline. Fractures created by ring faults may be filled by ring dikes. [13]

Synthetic and antithetic faults

Synthetic and antithetic faults are terms used to describe minor faults associated with a major fault. Synthetic faults dip in the same direction as the major fault while the antithetic faults dip in the opposite direction. These faults may be accompanied by rollover anticlines (e.g. the Niger Delta Structural Style).

Fault rock

Salmon-colored fault gouge and associated fault separates two different rock types on the left (dark gray) and right (light gray). From the Gobi of Mongolia. FaultGouge.JPG
Salmon-colored fault gouge and associated fault separates two different rock types on the left (dark gray) and right (light gray). From the Gobi of Mongolia.
Inactive fault from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie, Northern Ontario, Canada CREIGHTON.jpg
Inactive fault from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie, Northern Ontario, Canada

All faults have a measurable thickness, made up of deformed rock characteristic of the level in the crust where the faulting happened, of the rock types affected by the fault and of the presence and nature of any mineralising fluids. Fault rocks are classified by their textures and the implied mechanism of deformation. A fault that passes through different levels of the lithosphere will have many different types of fault rock developed along its surface. Continued dip-slip displacement tends to juxtapose fault rocks characteristic of different crustal levels, with varying degrees of overprinting. This effect is particularly clear in the case of detachment faults and major thrust faults.

The main types of fault rock include:

Impacts on structures and people

In geotechnical engineering a fault often forms a discontinuity that may have a large influence on the mechanical behavior (strength, deformation, etc.) of soil and rock masses in, for example, tunnel, foundation, or slope construction.

The level of a fault's activity can be critical for (1) locating buildings, tanks, and pipelines and (2) assessing the seismic shaking and tsunami hazard to infrastructure and people in the vicinity. In California, for example, new building construction has been prohibited directly on or near faults that have moved within the Holocene Epoch (the last 11,700 years) of the Earth's geological history. [14] Also, faults that have shown movement during the Holocene plus Pleistocene Epochs (the last 2.6 million years) may receive consideration, especially for critical structures such as power plants, dams, hospitals, and schools. Geologists assess a fault's age by studying soil features seen in shallow excavations and geomorphology seen in aerial photographs. Subsurface clues include shears and their relationships to carbonate nodules, eroded clay, and iron oxide mineralization, in the case of older soil, and lack of such signs in the case of younger soil. Radiocarbon dating of organic material buried next to or over a fault shear is often critical in distinguishing active from inactive faults. From such relationships, paleoseismologists can estimate the sizes of past earthquakes over the past several hundred years, and develop rough projections of future fault activity.

Faults and ore deposits

Many ore deposits lie on faults. This is due to the fact that damaged fault zones allow for the circulation of mineral-bearing fluids. Intersections of near-vertical faults are often locations of significant ore deposits. [15]

An example of a fault hosting valuable porphyry copper deposits is northern Chile's Domeyko Fault with deposits at Chuquicamata, Collahuasi, El Abra, El Salvador, La Escondida and Potrerillos. [16] Further south in Chile Los Bronces and El Teniente porphyry copper deposit lie each at the intersection of two fault systems. [15]

See also


  1. Lutgens, Tarbuck, Tasa. Essentials of Geology (11th ed.). p. 32.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. USGS & Fault Traces
  3. USGS & Fault Lines.
  4. SCEC & Education Module , p. 14.
  5. "Faults: Introduction". University of California, Santa Cruz. Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 19 March 2010.
  6. USGS & Hanging Wall.
  7. Tingley & Pizarro 2000 , p. 132
  8. Allaby 2015.
  9. Park 2004
  10. Peacock D.C.P.; Knipe R.J.; Sanderson D.J. (2000). "Glossary of normal faults". Journal of Structural Geology. 22 (3): 298. Bibcode:2000JSG....22..291P. doi:10.1016/S0191-8141(00)80102-9.
  11. "dip slip". Earthquake Glossary. USGS . Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  12. "How are reverse faults different than thrust faults? In what way are they similar?". UCSB Science Line. University of California, Santa Barbara. 13 February 2012. Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  13. 1 2 "Structural Geology Notebook – Caldera Faults". maps.unomaha.edu. Retrieved 2018-04-06.
  14. Brodie et al. 2007
  15. 1 2 Piquer Romo, José Meulen; Yáñez, Gonzálo; Rivera, Orlando; Cooke, David (2019). "Long-lived crustal damage zones associated with fault intersections in the high Andes of Central Chile". Andean Geology . 46 (2): 223–239. doi:10.5027/andgeoV46n2-3108 (inactive 2019-12-25). Retrieved June 9, 2019.
  16. Robb, Laurence (2007). Introduction to Ore-Forming Processes (4th ed.). Malden, MA, United States: Blackwell Science Ltd. p. 104. ISBN   978-0-632-06378-9.

Related Research Articles

Earthquake Shaking of the surface of the earth caused by a sudden release of energy in the crust

An earthquake is the shaking of the surface of the Earth resulting from a sudden release of energy in the Earth's lithosphere that creates seismic waves. Earthquakes can range in size from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt to those violent enough to propel objects into the air, and wreak destruction across entire cities. The seismicity, or seismic activity, of an area is the frequency, type, and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time. The word tremor is also used for non-earthquake seismic rumbling.

Structural geology The science of the description and interpretation of deformation in the Earths crust

Structural geology is the study of the three-dimensional distribution of rock units with respect to their deformational histories. The primary goal of structural geology is to use measurements of present-day rock geometries to uncover information about the history of deformation (strain) in the rocks, and ultimately, to understand the stress field that resulted in the observed strain and geometries. This understanding of the dynamics of the stress field can be linked to important events in the geologic past; a common goal is to understand the structural evolution of a particular area with respect to regionally widespread patterns of rock deformation due to plate tectonics.

Tectonics The processes that control the structure and properties of the Earths crust and its evolution through time

Tectonics is the process that controls the structure and properties of the Earth's crust and its evolution through time. In particular, it describes the processes of mountain building, the growth and behavior of the strong, old cores of continents known as cratons, and the ways in which the relatively rigid plates that constitute the Earth's outer shell interact with each other. Tectonics also provides a framework for understanding the earthquake and volcanic belts that directly affect much of the global population. Tectonic studies are important as guides for economic geologists searching for fossil fuels and ore deposits of metallic and nonmetallic resources. An understanding of tectonic principles is essential to geomorphologists to explain erosion patterns and other Earth surface features.

Fold (geology) fold in geology

In structural geology, a fold occurs when one or a stack of originally flat and planar surfaces, such as sedimentary strata, are bent or curved as a result of permanent deformation. Synsedimentary folds are those due to slumping of sedimentary material before it is lithified. Folds in rocks vary in size from microscopic crinkles to mountain-sized folds. They occur as single isolated folds or in sets.

Moine Thrust Belt fault in Highland, Scotland, UK

The Moine Thrust Belt or Moine Thrust Zone is a linear tectonic feature in the Scottish Highlands which runs from Loch Eriboll on the north coast 190 kilometres (120 mi) south-west to the Sleat peninsula on the Isle of Skye. The thrust belt consists of a series of thrust faults that branch off the Moine Thrust itself. Topographically, the belt marks a change from rugged, terraced mountains with steep sides sculptured from weathered igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in the west to an extensive landscape of rolling hills over a metamorphic rock base to the east. Mountains within the belt display complexly folded and faulted layers and the width of the main part of the zone varies up to 10 kilometres (6.2 mi), although it is significantly wider on Skye.

Shear zone structural discontinuity surface in the Earths crust and upper mantle

A shear zone is a very important structural discontinuity surface in the Earth's crust and upper mantle. It forms as a response to inhomogeneous deformation partitioning strain into planar or curviplanar high-strain zones. Intervening (crustal) blocks stay relatively unaffected by the deformation. Due to the shearing motion of the surrounding more rigid medium, a rotational, non co-axial component can be induced in the shear zone. Because the discontinuity surface usually passes through a wide depth-range, a great variety of different rock types with their characteristic structures are produced.

Shear (geology) in geology, the response of a rock to deformation usually by compressive stress

Shear is the response of a rock to deformation usually by compressive stress and forms particular textures. Shear can be homogeneous or non-homogeneous, and may be pure shear or simple shear. Study of geological shear is related to the study of structural geology, rock microstructure or rock texture and fault mechanics.

The Lewis Overthrust is a geologic thrust fault structure of the Rocky Mountains found within the bordering national parks of Glacier in Montana, United States and Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Canada. The structure was created due to the collision of tectonic plates about 170 million years ago that drove a several mile thick wedge of rock 50 mi (80 km) eastwards, causing it to overlie softer Cretaceous age rock that is 400 to 500 million years younger.

A cataclastic rock is a type of fault rock that has been wholly or partly formed by the progressive fracturing and comminution of existing rocks, a process known as cataclasis. Cataclasis involves the granulation, crushing, or milling of the original rock, then rigid-body rotation and translation of mineral grains or aggregates before lithification. Cataclastic rocks are associated with fault zones and impact event breccias.

Strike-slip tectonics is concerned with the structures formed by, and the tectonic processes associated with, zones of lateral displacement within the Earth's crust or lithosphere.

Detachment fault

Detachment faulting is associated with large-scale extensional tectonics. Detachment faults often have very large displacements and juxtapose unmetamorphosed hanging walls against medium to high-grade metamorphic footwalls that are called metamorphic core complexes. They are thought to have formed as either initially low-angle structures or by the rotation of initially high-angle normal faults modified also by the isostatic effects of tectonic denudation. Examples of detachment faulting include:

Inversion (geology) Relative uplift of a sedimentary basin or similar structure as a result of crustal shortening

In structural geology inversion or basin inversion relates to the relative uplift of a sedimentary basin or similar structure as a result of crustal shortening. This normally excludes uplift developed in the footwalls of later extensional faults, or uplift caused by mantle plumes. "Inversion" can also refer to individual faults, where an extensional fault is reactivated in the opposite direction to its original movement.

Section restoration

In structural geology section restoration or palinspastic restoration is a technique used to progressively undeform a geological section in an attempt to validate the interpretation used to build the section. It is also used to provide insights into the geometry of earlier stages of the geological development of an area. A section that can be successfully undeformed to a geologically reasonable geometry, without change in area, is known as a balanced section.

Teton Fault

The Teton fault is a normal fault located in northwestern Wyoming. The fault has a length of 44 miles (70 km) and runs along the eastern base of the Teton Range. Vertical movement on the fault has caused the dramatic topography of the Teton Range.

El Tigre Fault

The El Tigre Fault is a 120 km long, roughly north-south trending, major strike-slip fault located in the Western Precordillera in Argentina. The Precordillera lies just to the east of the Andes mountain range in South America. The northern boundary of the fault is the Jáchal River and its southern boundary is the San Juan River. The fault is divided into three sections based on fault trace geometry, Northern extending between 41–46 km in length, Central extending between 48–53 km in length, and Southern extending 26 km in length. The fault displays a right-lateral (horizontal) motion and has formed in response to stresses from the Nazca Plate subducting under the South American Plate. It is a major fault with crustal significance. The Andes Mountain belt trends with respect to the Nazca Plate/South American Plate convergence zone, and deformation is divided between the Precordilleran thrust faults and the El Tigre strike-slip motion. The El Tigre Fault is currently seismically active.

Growth fault

Growth faults are syndepositional or syn-sedimentary extensional faults that initiate and evolve at the margins of continental plates. They extend parallel to passive margins that have high sediment supply. Their fault plane dips mostly toward the basin and has long-term continuous displacement. Figure one shows a growth fault with a concave upward fault plane that has high updip angle and flattened at its base into zone of detachment or décollement. This angle is continuously changing from nearly vertical in the updip area to nearly horizontal in the downdip area.

Geological deformation of Iceland

The geological deformation of Iceland is the way that the rocks of the island of Iceland are changing due to tectonic forces. The geological deformation explains the location of earthquakes, volcanoes, fissures, and the shape of the island. Iceland is the largest landmass (102,775 km²) situated on an oceanic ridge. It is an elevated plateau of the sea floor, situated at the crossing of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Greenland-Iceland-Faeroe Ridge. It lies along the oceanic divergent plate boundary of North American Plate and Eurasian Plate. The western part of Iceland sits on the North American Plate and the eastern part sits on the Eurasian Plate. The Reykjanes Ridge of the Mid-Atlantic ridge system in this region crosses the island from southwest and connects to the Kolbeinsey Ridge in the northeast.

The Dauki fault is a major fault along the southern boundary of the Shillong Plateau that may be a source of destructive seismic hazards for the adjoining areas, including northeastern Bangladesh. The fault, inferred to go through the southern margin of the Shillong Plateau, is an east–west-trending reverse fault inclined towards the north.

Bogotá Fault

The Bogotá Fault is a major inactive slightly dextral oblique thrust fault in the department of Cundinamarca in central Colombia. The fault has a total length of 79.3 kilometres (49.3 mi), while other authors designate a length of 107 kilometres (66 mi), and runs along an average north-northeast to south-southwest strike of 013.5 ± 7 across the Altiplano Cundiboyacense, central part of the Eastern Ranges of the Colombian Andes.

Surface rupture Geological phenomenon

Surface rupture is the visible offset of the ground surface when an earthquake rupture along a fault affects the Earth's surface. Surface rupture is opposed by buried rupture, where there is no displacement at ground level. This is a major risk to any structure that is built across a fault zone that may be active, in addition to any risk from ground shaking. Surface rupture entails vertical or horizontal movement, on either side of a ruptured fault. Surface rupture can affect large areas of land.


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