National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2014

Seismic precursors linked to super-critical fluids at oceanic transform faults

Géli, L., J.-M. Piau, R. Dziak, V. Maury, D. Fitzenz, Q. Coutellier, and P. Henry

Nature Geosci., 7, 757–761, doi: 10.1038/ngeo2244 (2014)

Large earthquakes on mid-ocean ridge transform faults are commonly preceded by foreshocks and changes in the seismic properties of the fault zone. These seismic precursors could be linked to fluid-related processes. Hydrothermal fluids within young, hot crust near the intersection of oceanic transform faults are probably in a supercritical condition. At constant temperature, supercritical fluids become significantly more compressible with decreasing pressure, with potential impacts on fault behaviour. Here we use a theoretical model to show that oceanic transform faults can switch from dilatant and progressive deformation to rupture in response to fluid-related processes. We assume that the fault core material behaves according to a Cam-clay-type constitutive law, which is commonly used to account for the behaviour of clays. According to our model, we find that the fault is initially stable, with stresses gradually increasing over a timescale of years in response to tectonic loading. The fault evolves into a metastable phase, lasting a few days, during which the fault rocks dilate and pore pressures decrease, causing the compressibility of the supercritical fluids to increase. This in turn triggers fault-slip instability that creates foreshock swarms. In the final phase, the fault fails in the mainshock rupture. Our results imply that seismic precursors are caused by changes in fluid pressure which result in variations in fluid compressibility, in response to rock deformation just before rupture.

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