Dynamic weakening during earthquakes controlled by fluid thermodynamics

M Acosta, F X Passelègue, A Schubnel, M Violay
Nature Communications 2018 August 6, 9 (1): 3074
Earthquakes result from weakening of faults (transient decrease in friction) during co-seismic slip. Dry faults weaken due to degradation of fault asperities by frictional heating (e.g. flash heating). In the presence of fluids, theoretical models predict faults to weaken by thermal pressurization of fault fluid. However, experimental evidence of rock/fluid interactions during dynamic rupture under realistic stress conditions remains poorly documented. Here we demonstrate that the relative contribution of thermal pressurization and flash heating to fault weakening depends on fluid thermodynamic properties. Our dynamic records of laboratory earthquakes demonstrate that flash heating drives strength loss under dry and low (1 MPa) fluid pressure conditions. Conversely, flash heating is inhibited at high fluid pressure (25 MPa) because water's liquid-supercritical phase transition buffers frictional heat. Our results are supported by flash-heating theory modified for pressurized fluids and by numerical modelling of thermal pressurization. The heat buffer effect has maximum efficiency at mid-crustal depths (~2-5 km), where many anthropogenic earthquakes nucleate.


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