Can grain size sensitive creep lubricate faults during earthquake propagation?
Abstract:In the shallow portion of crustal fault zones, fracturing and cataclasis are thought to be the dominant processes during earthquake propagation. In the lower crust/upper mantle, viscous flow is inferred to facilitate aseismic creep along shear zones. Recent studies show that slip zones (SZs), in natural and experimental carbonate seismic faults, are made of nanograins with a polygonal texture, a microstructure consistent with deformation by grain boundary sliding (GBS) mechanisms.
Friction experiments performed on calcite fine-grained gouges, at speed v = 1 ms-1, normal stress sn = 18 MPa, displacements d = 0.009–1.46 m, and room temperature and humidity, show a four stage-evolution of the fault strength: SI) attainment of initial value, f = 0.67; SII) increase up to peak value f = 0.82; SIII) sudden decrease to low steady-state value, f = 0.18; and SIV) sudden increase to final value, f = 0.44, during sample deceleration.
Samples recovered at the end of each displacement-controlled experiments (Stages I–IV) show the following microstructures evolution of the SZ material, which is: SI) poorly consolidated, and made of fine-grained (1 < D < 5 microns), angular clasts formed by brittle fracturing and cataclasis; SII) cohesive, and made of larger clasts of calcite (D ≈ 1 microns), exhibiting a high density of free dislocations and hosting subgrains (D ≤ 200 nm), dispersed within calcite nanograins. SIII) made of nanograin aggregates exhibiting polygonal grain boundaries, and 120° triple junctions between equiaxial grains. The grains display no preferred elongation, no crystal preferred orientation and low free dislocation densities, possibly due to high temperature (> 900 C) GBS creep deformation.
Our microstructural observations suggest that GBS mechanisms can operate in geological materials deformed at high strain rates along frictionally heated seismogenic slip surfaces. The observed microstructures in experimental slip zones are strikingly similar to those predicted by theoretical studies, and to those observed during experiments on metals and fine-grained carbonates deformed at T > 900 °C, where superplastic behaviour due to GBS has been inferred. A regime of frictionally-induced GBS could thus account for the dynamic weakening of carbonate faults during earthquake propagation in nature.