Slip on Ridge Transform Faults: Insights from Earthquakes and Laboratory Experiments

Margaret Boettcher, Ph.D., 2005
J. Gregory Hirth, Jeffrey McGuire, Advisors

The relatively simple tectonic environment of mid-ocean ridge transform fault (RTF) seis- micity provides a unique opportunity for investigation of earthquake and faulting processes. We develop a scaling model that is complete in that all the seismic parameters are related to the RTF tectonic parameters. Laboratory work on the frictional stability of olivine ag- gregates shows that the depth extent of oceanic faulting is thermally controlled and limited by the 600°C isotherm. Slip on RTFs is primarily aseismic, only 15% of the tectonic offset is accommodated by earthquakes. Despite extensive fault areas, few large earthquakes oc- cur on RTFs, and few aftershocks follow the large events. Standard models of seismicity, in which all earthquakes result from the same seismic triggering process, do not describe RTF earthquakes. Instead, large earthquakes appear to be preceded by an extended fault preparation process marked by abundant foreshocks within 1 hour and 15 km of the main- shocks. In our experiments normal force vibrations, such as seismic radiation from nearby earthquakes, can weaken and potentially destabilize steadily creeping faults. Integrating the rheology, geology, and seismicity of RTFs, we develop a synoptic model to better un- derstand the spatial distribution of fault strength and stability and provide insight into slip accommodation on RTFs.