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The inner workings of the earthquake cycle: New insight from integrating geophysical observations and microstructures

Project Description

Slip behaviour at and around faults has been shown to be highly dynamic with variability in behaviour occurring both spatially and temporally. This exciting project explores the underlying physical processes that lie at the core of dynamic slip behaviour by probing the rock record of fault slip. In this novel project, you will integrate knowledge obtained from high resolution laser scanning (LiDAR), quantitative microstructural work, and Quaternary fault studies to gain an in-depth understanding of the physical processes acting on a fault and/or fault zone. Results will be far reaching in fundamental science with direct implications for applied science in terms of earthquake hazard evaluation.

Earthquakes are one of the main hazards that humanity faces, therefore improving our ability to anticipate how fault zones behave through time is of major importance. However, we have still very little understanding of why some faults appear to accommodate different slip modes and others do not, how different slip processes are represented in the rock record, and why faults cycle between different modes. This project in novel in its cross-disciplinary nature integrating earthquake cycle analysis on real rocks including information on the average fault history using isotopic age dating on fault rocks, patterns of fault surface roughness, and their link to microstructures from natural and experimental fault rocks. In Leeds we have the rare opportunity of this integration as experts in the respective fields are within the same school. In addition, strong personal links to former Leeds staff members (e.g. Dr Jess Hawthorne, now Oxford University) and collaborators (Prof Ken McCaffrey, Durham) strengthen this project.

In this project, the student will work to integrate the latest techniques in characterising fault zone structures in order to understand the dynamics of the physical processes preserved from the earthquake cycle. The project will address the following questions:

1) Processes: What physiochemical processes are involved in fast fault slip, creep, and postseismic afterslip? How do these processes evolve as a fault grows and develops?

2) Recognition: How can various earthquake cycle behaviour be identified in natural rocks? What is the link between micro- and meso- scale features of damage on a fault, if any?

3) Effect: What is the mechanical effect of the different processes identified in (1)? What is an appropriate mathematical representation of such dynamic behaviour? Based on the latter, can we forecast the timescale and spatial behaviour of fault zones past, present and future?

In order to answers the question posed above, it will be necessary to combine different techniques and approaches.

1. Investigate small scale features in samples close to or on the fault using the latest field based (e.g. fault zone laser scanning) and analytical (e.g. nanoscale electron microscopy, microtomography) techniques. The field area in central Italy with faults of known Quaternary fault slip rates (e.g. Cowie et al. 2017) will be the initial focus but we anticipate expansion of the field area to southwestern Turkey and/or the western USA.

2. Develop models of process dynamics derived from field and sample analysis. Link structures observed at all scales through careful sample selection.

3. Integrate key parameters derived from microstructural analyses into fault slip modelling/physical calculations and compare the results with observed fault behaviours. (e.g. Hawthorne et al. 2016)

4. Conduct well-constrained experiments of fault slip in the laboratory collaborating with project partner Prof Shengwen Qi at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, followed by subsequent in-depth analysis of experimental samples (e.g. Piazolo et al. 2015).

5. Develop and test hypotheses linking the observations from the rock record into fault slip behaviours, relying on what we already know from the earthquake and Quaternary records on the faults you have studied.

We expect the balance between these approaches to vary depending on the specific interests of the student. There is the potential to develop novel methods of integrating what you may observe in the rock record with physical models of fault slip; a challenging but important endeavour.

Funding Notes

This project is available for funding through the Panorama NERC DTP, please see View Website for funding details and eligibility requirements.


Barbot, S., N Lapusta, and JP Avouac (2012). Under the hood of the earthquake machine: toward predictive modelling of the seismic cycle. Science 336, pp 707-710, doi: 10.1126/science.1218796.
Cowie, PA, Phillips, RJ, Roberts, GP, McCaffrey, K, Zijerveld, LJJ, Gregory, LC, Faure Walker, J, Wedmore, LNJ, Dunai, TJ, Binnie, SA, Freeman, SPHT, Wilcken, K, Shanks, RP, Huismans, RS, Papanikolaou, I, Michetti, AM, and Wilkinson, M (2017). Orogen-scale uplift in the central Italian Apennines drives episodic behaviour of earthquake faults. Scientific Reports 7:44858, doi: 10.1038/srep44858.
Davidesko, G, Sagy, A, Hatzor, YH (2014). Evolution of slip surface roughness through shear. Geophysical Research Letters 41, 1492–1498, doi:10.1002/2013GL058913.
Delle Piane, C., Piazolo, S., Timms, N. E., Luzin, V., et al. (2017). Sub-seismic slip in nano calcite fault gouge generates amorphous carbon and crystallographic texture at low temperature. Geology 46, 163-166.
Dunham, EM, D Belanger, L Cong, and JE Kozdon (2011). Earthquake ruptures with strongly rate-weakening friction and off-fault plasticity, part 2: Nonplanar faults.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 101 (5), pp 2296–2307, doi: 10.1785/0120100076
Hawthorne, JC, Boxtock, MG, Royer, AA, and Thomas, AA (2016). Variations in slow slip moment rate associated with rapid tremor reversals in Cascadia. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 17, pp 4899-4919, doi: 10.1002/2016GC006489.
Ingleby, T and Wright, TJ (2017). Omori-like decay of postseismic velocities following continental earthquakes. Geophysical Research Letters 44, 3119–3130, doi:10.1002/2017GL072865.
Marone, C (1998). The effect of loading rate on static friction and the rate of fault healing during the earthquake cycle. Nature 391, pp 69-72.
Perfettini, H and Ampuero, JP (2008). Dynamics of a velocity strengthening fault region: Implications for slow earthquakes and postseismic slip. Journal of Geophysical Research 113, B09411, doi:10.1029/2007JB005398.
Piazolo S; La Fontaine A; Trimby P; Harley S; Yang L; Armstrong R; Cairney JM (2016) Deformation-induced trace element redistribution in zircon revealed using atom probe tomography, Nature Communications, 7, . doi: 10.1038/ncomms10490
Piazolo S; Montagnat M; Grennerat F; Moulinec H; Wheeler J (2015) Effect of local stress heterogeneities on dislocation fields: Examples from transient creep in polycrystalline ice, Acta Materialia, 90, pp.303-309. doi: 10.1016/j.actamat.2015.02.046
Rice, JR (2006). Heating and weakening of faults during earthquake slip. Journal of Geophysical Research 111; B05311, doi:10.1029/2005JB004006.
Weldon, R, Scharer, K, Fumal, T, and Biasi, G (2004). Wrightwood and the earthquake cycle: what a long recurrence record tells us about how faults work. GSA Today 14 (9), pp 4-10, doi: 10.1130/1052-5173(2004)0142.0CO;2.

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