Transform fault

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Diagram showing a transform fault with two plates moving in opposite directions Continental-continental conservative plate boundary opposite directions.svg
Diagram showing a transform fault with two plates moving in opposite directions
Transform fault (the red lines) Transform fault-1.svg
Transform fault (the red lines)

A transform fault or transform boundary is a fault along a plate boundary where the motion is predominantly horizontal. [1] It ends abruptly where it connects to another plate boundary, either another transform, a spreading ridge, or a subduction zone. [2]


Most such faults are found in oceanic crust, where they accommodate the lateral offset between segments of divergent boundaries, forming a zigzag pattern. This is a result of oblique seafloor spreading where the direction of motion is not perpendicular to the trend of the overall divergent boundary. A smaller number of such faults are found on land, although these are generally better-known, such as the San Andreas Fault. A transform fault is a special case of a strike-slip fault that also forms a plate boundary.


Transform boundaries are also known as conservative plate boundaries because they involve no addition or loss of lithosphere at the Earth's surface. [3]


Geophysicist and geologist John Tuzo Wilson recognized that the offsets of oceanic ridges by faults do not follow the classical pattern of an offset fence or geological marker in Reid's rebound theory of faulting, [4] from which the sense of slip is derived. The new class of faults, [5] called transform faults, produce slip in the opposite direction from what one would surmise from the standard interpretation of an offset geological feature. Slip along transform faults does not increase the distance between the ridges it separates; the distance remains constant in earthquakes because the ridges are spreading centers. This hypothesis was confirmed in a study of the fault plane solutions that showed the slip on transform faults points in the opposite direction than classical interpretation would suggest. [6]

Difference between transform and transcurrent faults

Transform fault.svg
Transform fault
Transcurrent NEW.svg
Transcurrent fault

Transform faults are closely related to transcurrent faults and are commonly confused. Both types of fault are strike-slip or side-to-side in movement; nevertheless, transform faults always end at a junction with another plate boundary, while transcurrent faults may die out without a junction with another fault. Finally, transform faults form a tectonic plate boundary, while transcurrent faults do not.


The effect of a fault is to relieve strain, which can be caused by compression, extension, or lateral stress in the rock layers at the surface or deep in the Earth's subsurface. Transform faults specifically relieve the strain by transferring displacement between ridges or subduction zones. They also act as the plane of weakness, which may result in splitting in rift zones.[ citation needed ]


Transform faults are commonly found linking segments of mid-oceanic ridges or spreading centres. These mid-oceanic ridges are where new seafloor is constantly created through the upwelling of new basaltic magma. With new seafloor being pushed and pulled out, the older seafloor slowly slides away from the mid-oceanic ridges toward the continents. Although separated only by tens of kilometers, this separation between segments of the ridges causes portions of the seafloor to push past each other in opposing directions. This lateral movement of seafloors past each other is where transform faults are currently active.

Spreading center and strips Spreading center and strips.png
Spreading center and strips

Transform faults move differently from a strike-slip fault at the mid-oceanic ridge. Instead of the ridges moving away from each other, as they do in other strike-slip faults, transform-fault ridges remain in the same, fixed locations, and the new ocean seafloor created at the ridges is pushed away from the ridge. Evidence of this motion can be found in paleomagnetic striping on the seafloor.

A paper written by geophysicist Taras Gerya theorizes that the creation of the transform faults between the ridges of the mid-oceanic ridge is attributed to rotated and stretched sections of the mid-oceanic ridge. [7] This occurs over a long period of time with the spreading center or ridge slowly deforming from a straight line to a curved line. Finally, fracturing along these planes forms transform faults. As this takes place, the fault changes from a normal fault with extensional stress to a strike-slip fault with lateral stress. [8] In the study done by Bonatti and Crane,[ who? ] peridotite and gabbro rocks were discovered in the edges of the transform ridges. These rocks are created deep inside the Earth's mantle and then rapidly exhumed to the surface. [8] This evidence helps to prove that new seafloor is being created at the mid-oceanic ridges and further supports the theory of plate tectonics.

Active transform faults are between two tectonic structures or faults. Fracture zones represent the previously active transform-fault lines, which have since passed the active transform zone and are being pushed toward the continents. These elevated ridges on the ocean floor can be traced for hundreds of miles and in some cases even from one continent across an ocean to the other continent.

The most prominent examples of the mid-oceanic ridge transform zones are in the Atlantic Ocean between South America and Africa. Known as the St. Paul, Romanche, Chain, and Ascension fracture zones, these areas have deep, easily identifiable transform faults and ridges. Other locations include: the East Pacific Ridge located in the South Eastern Pacific Ocean, which meets up with San Andreas Fault to the North.

Transform faults are not limited to oceanic crust and spreading centers; many of them are on continental margins. The best example is the San Andreas Fault on the Pacific coast of the United States. The San Andreas Fault links the East Pacific Rise off the West coast of Mexico (Gulf of California) to the Mendocino Triple Junction (Part of the Juan de Fuca plate) off the coast of the Northwestern United States, making it a ridge-to-transform-style fault. [5] The formation of the San Andreas Fault system occurred fairly recently during the Oligocene Period between 34 million and 24 million years ago. [9] During this period, the Farallon plate, followed by the Pacific plate, collided into the North American plate. [9] The collision led to the subduction of the Farallon plate underneath the North American plate. Once the spreading center separating the Pacific and the Farallon plates was subducted beneath the North American plate, the San Andreas Continental Transform-Fault system was created. [9]

The Southern Alps rise dramatically beside the Alpine Fault on New Zealand's West Coast. About 500 kilometres (300 mi) long; northwest at top. Alpine Fault SRTM.jpg
The Southern Alps rise dramatically beside the Alpine Fault on New Zealand's West Coast. About 500 kilometres (300 mi) long; northwest at top.

In New Zealand, the South Island's alpine fault is a transform fault for much of its length. This has resulted in the folded land of the Southland Syncline being split into an eastern and western section several hundred kilometres apart. The majority of the syncline is found in Southland and The Catlins in the island's southeast, but a smaller section is also present in the Tasman District in the island's northwest.

Other examples include:


In his work on transform-fault systems, geologist Tuzo Wilson said that transform faults must be connected to other faults or tectonic-plate boundaries on both ends; because of that requirement, transform faults can grow in length, keep a constant length, or decrease in length. [5] These length changes are dependent on which type of fault or tectonic structure connect with the transform fault. Wilson described six types of transform faults:

Growing length: In situations where a transform fault links a spreading center and the upper block of a subduction zone or where two upper blocks of subduction zones are linked, the transform fault itself will grow in length. [5]

Spreading to upper NEW.svg Upper to upper.svg

Constant length: In other cases, transform faults will remain at a constant length. This steadiness can be attributed to many different causes. In the case of ridge-to-ridge transforms, the constancy is caused by the continuous growth by both ridges outward, canceling any change in length. The opposite occurs when a ridge linked to a subducting plate, where all the lithosphere (new seafloor) being created by the ridge is subducted, or swallowed up, by the subduction zone. [5] Finally, when two upper subduction plates are linked there is no change in length. This is due to the plates moving parallel with each other and no new lithosphere is being created to change that length.

Spreading centers constant.svg Upper to down NEW.svg

Decreasing length faults: In rare cases, transform faults can shrink in length. These occur when two descending subduction plates are linked by a transform fault. In time as the plates are subducted, the transform fault will decrease in length until the transform fault disappears completely, leaving only two subduction zones facing in opposite directions. [5]

Down to down NEW.svg Spreading to Down NEW.svg

See also

Related Research Articles

Subduction A geological process at convergent tectonic plate boundaries where one plate moves under the other

Subduction is a geological process that takes place at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one plate moves under another and is forced to sink due to high gravitational potential energy into the mantle. Regions where this process occurs are known as subduction zones. Rates of subduction are typically measured in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Sedimentary basin Regions of long-term subsidence creating space for infilling by sediments

Sedimentary basins are regions of Earth of long-term subsidence creating accommodation space for infilling by sediments. The subsidence can result from a variety of causes that include: the thinning of underlying crust, sedimentary, volcanic, and tectonic loading, and changes in the thickness or density of adjacent lithosphere. Sedimentary basins occur in diverse geological settings usually associated with plate tectonic activity. Basins are classified structurally in various ways, with a primary classifications distinguishing among basins formed in various plate tectonic regime, the proximity of the basin to the active plate margins, and whether oceanic, continental or transitional crust underlies the basin. Basins formed in different plate tectonic regimes vary in their preservation potential. On oceanic crust, basins are likely to be subducted, while marginal continental basins may be partially preserved, and intracratonic basins have a high probability of preservation. As the sediments are buried, they are subjected to increasing pressure and begin the process of lithification. A number of basins formed in extensional settings can undergo inversion which has accounted for a number of the economically viable oil reserves on earth which were formerly basins.

Fault (geology) Fracture or discontinuity in rock across which there has been displacement

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. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes.

Divergent boundary Linear feature that exists between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other

In plate tectonics, a divergent boundary or divergent plate boundary is a linear feature that exists between two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other. Divergent boundaries within continents initially produce rifts, which eventually become rift valleys. Most active divergent plate boundaries occur between oceanic plates and exist as mid-oceanic ridges. Divergent boundaries also form volcanic islands, which occur when the plates move apart to produce gaps that molten lava rises to fill.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding lithospheric plates

A convergent boundary is an area on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other causing a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the Benioff Zone. These collisions happen on scales of millions to tens of millions of years and can lead to volcanism, earthquakes, orogenesis, destruction of lithosphere, and deformation. Convergent boundaries occur between oceanic-oceanic lithosphere, oceanic-continental lithosphere, and continental-continental lithosphere. The geologic features related to convergent boundaries vary depending on crust types.

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.

North American Plate Large tectonic plate including most of North America, Greenland and a bit of Siberia.

The North American Plate is a tectonic plate covering most of North America, Greenland, Cuba, the Bahamas, extreme northeastern Asia, and parts of Iceland and the Azores. With an area of 76 million km2 (29 million sq mi), it is the Earth's second largest tectonic plate, behind the Pacific Plate.

Juan de Fuca Plate small tectonic plate in the eastern North Pacific

The Juan de Fuca Plate is a tectonic plate generated from the Juan de Fuca Ridge that is subducting under the northerly portion of the western side of the North American Plate at the Cascadia subduction zone. It is named after the explorer of the same name. One of the smallest of Earth's tectonic plates, the Juan de Fuca Plate is a remnant part of the once-vast Farallon Plate, which is now largely subducted underneath the North American Plate.

Cocos Plate young oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Central America

The Cocos Plate is a young oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Central America, named for Cocos Island, which rides upon it. The Cocos Plate was created approximately 23 million years ago when the Farallon Plate broke into two pieces, which also created the Nazca Plate. The Cocos Plate also broke into two pieces, creating the small Rivera Plate. The Cocos Plate is bounded by several different plates. To the northeast it is bounded by the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. To the west it is bounded by the Pacific Plate and to the south by the Nazca Plate.

Explorer Plate oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada

The Explorer Plate is an oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada and is partially subducted under the North American Plate. Along with the Juan De Fuca Plate and Gorda Plate, the Explorer Plate is a remnant of the ancient Farallon Plate which has been subducted under the North American Plate. The Explorer Plate separated from the Juan De Fuca Plate roughly 4 million years ago. In its smoother, southern half, the average depth of the Explorer plate is roughly 2,400 metres (7,900 ft) and rises up in its northern half to a highly variable basin between 1,400 metres (4,600 ft) and 2,200 metres (7,200 ft) in depth.

Fracture zone junction between oceanic crustal regions of different ages on the same plate left by a transform fault

A fracture zone is a linear oceanic feature—often hundreds, even thousands of kilometers long—resulting from the action of offset mid-ocean ridge axis segments. They are a consequence of plate tectonics. Lithospheric plates on either side of an active transform fault move in opposite directions; here, strike-slip activity occurs. Fracture zones extend past the transform faults, away from the ridge axis; seismically inactive, they display evidence of past transform fault activity, primarily in the different ages of the crust on opposite sides of the zone.

Triple junction The point where the boundaries of three tectonic plates meet

A triple junction is the point where the boundaries of three tectonic plates meet. At the triple junction each of the three boundaries will be one of 3 types – a ridge (R), trench (T) or transform fault (F) – and triple junctions can be described according to the types of plate margin that meet at them. Of the many possible types of triple junction only a few are stable through time. The meeting of 4 or more plates is also theoretically possible but junctions will only exist instantaneously.

Mid-ocean ridge underwater mountain system formed by plate tectonic spreading

A mid-ocean ridge (MOR) is a seafloor mountain system formed by plate tectonics. It typically has a depth of ~ 2,600 meters (8,500 ft) and rises about two kilometers above the deepest portion of an ocean basin. This feature is where seafloor spreading takes place along a divergent plate boundary. The rate of seafloor spreading determines the morphology of the crest of the mid-ocean ridge and its width in an ocean basin. The production of new seafloor and oceanic lithosphere results from mantle upwelling in response to plate separation. The melt rises as magma at the linear weakness between the separating plates, and emerges as lava, creating new oceanic crust and lithosphere upon cooling. The first discovered mid-ocean ridge was the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is a spreading center that bisects the North and South Atlantic basins; hence the origin of the name 'mid-ocean ridge'. Most oceanic spreading centers are not in the middle of their hosting ocean basis but regardless, are traditionally called mid-ocean ridges. Mid-ocean ridges around the globe are linked by plate tectonic boundaries and the trace of the ridges across the ocean floor appears similar to the seam of a baseball. The mid-ocean ridge system thus is the longest mountain range on Earth, reaching about 65,000 km (40,000 mi).

A submarine, undersea, or underwater earthquake is an earthquake that occurs underwater at the bottom of a body of water, especially an ocean. They are the leading cause of tsunamis. The magnitude can be measured scientifically by the use of the moment magnitude scale and the intensity can be assigned using the Mercalli intensity scale.

Explorer Ridge mid-ocean ridge west of British Columbia, Canada

The Explorer Ridge is a mid-ocean ridge, a divergent tectonic plate boundary located about 241 km (150 mi) west of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. It lies at the northern extremity of the Pacific spreading axis. To its east is the Explorer Plate, which together with the Juan de Fuca Plate and the Gorda Plate to its south, is what remains of the once-vast Farallon Plate which has been largely subducted under the North American Plate. The Explorer Ridge consists of one major segment, the Southern Explorer Ridge, and several smaller segments. It runs northward from the Sovanco Fracture Zone to the Queen Charlotte Triple Junction, a point where it meets the Queen Charlotte Fault and the northern Cascadia subduction zone.

Izu–Bonin–Mariana Arc

The Izu–Bonin–Mariana (IBM) arc system is a tectonic-plate convergent boundary. The IBM arc system extends over 2800 km south from Tokyo, Japan, to beyond Guam, and includes the Izu Islands, Bonin Islands, and Mariana Islands; much more of the IBM arc system is submerged below sealevel. The IBM arc system lies along the eastern margin of the Philippine Sea Plate in the Western Pacific Ocean. It is the site of the deepest gash in Earth's solid surface, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.

Macquarie Triple Junction Place where the Indo-Australian Plate, Pacific Plate, and Antarctic Plate meet

The Macquarie Triple Junction is a geologically active tectonic boundary located at 61°30′S161°0′E at which the Indo-Australian Plate, Pacific Plate, and Antarctic Plate collide and interact. The term Triple Junction is given to particular tectonic boundaries at which three separate tectonic plates meet at a specific, singular location. The Macquarie Triple Junction is located on the seafloor of the southern region of the Pacific Ocean, just south of New Zealand. This tectonic boundary was named in respect to the nearby Macquarie Island, which is located southeast of New Zealand.

This is a list of articles related to plate tectonics and tectonic plates.

Geology of the Pacific Ocean overview about the geology of the Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean evolved in the Mesozoic from the Panthalassic Ocean, which had formed when Rodinia rifted apart around 750 Ma. The first ocean floor which is part of the current Pacific Plate began 160 Ma to the west of the central Pacific and subsequently developed into the largest oceanic plate on Earth.

Ridge push or sliding plate force is a proposed driving force for plate motion in plate tectonics that occurs at mid-ocean ridges as the result of the rigid lithosphere sliding down the hot, raised asthenosphere below mid-ocean ridges. Although it is called ridge push, the term is somewhat misleading; it is actually a body force that acts throughout an ocean plate, not just at the ridge, as a result of gravitational pull. The name comes from earlier models of plate tectonics in which ridge push was primarily ascribed to upwelling magma at mid-ocean ridges pushing or wedging the plates apart.


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