In the uppermost ∼3–5 km of continental strike-slip faults, a significant fraction of the total slip is typically accommodated by stable sliding, or fault creep. Creep can be continuous or episodic, lasting only a few hours, and varies throughout the earthquake cycle and from one fault to another. The most commonly used mechanical model attributes episodic creep events to the transition from unconsolidated sediments to lithified rocks at depth. However, this model cannot explain the wide variability in observed shallow creep characteristics on strike-slip faults in California.
In an article published in Nature Geoscience, my colleagues and I use numerical simulations to examine a range of alternative mechanical models that can reproduce the variability of shallow creep behaviour in both postseismic and interseismic periods. We find that geodetic observations of creep behaviour on a number of significant fault segments in California are matched when an additional unstable layer is embedded within the shallow, stable zone. This layer may result from fine-scale lithological heterogeneities within the stable zone—frictional behaviour varies with lithology, generating the instability. Our model suggests that the displacement of and interval between creep events are dependent on the thickness, stress and frictional properties of the shallow, unstable layer. We also suggest that such frictional heterogeneity may be the mechanism responsible for slow slip events in many subduction zones.
In another paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, we document the history of fault creep events on the Superstition Hills Fault based on data from creepmeters, InSAR, and field surveys since 1988. We focus on a subset of these creep events that were triggered by significant nearby earthquakes. We model these events by adding realistic static and dynamic perturbations to a theoretical fault model based on rate- and state-dependent friction. We find that the static stress changes from the causal earthquakes are less than 0.1 MPa and too small to instantaneously trigger creep events. In contrast, we can reproduce the characteristics of triggered slip with dynamic perturbations alone. The instantaneous triggering of creep events depends on the peak and the time-integrated amplitudes of the dynamic Coulomb stress change. Based on observations and simulations, the stress change amplitude required to trigger a creep event of a 0.01-mm surface slip is about 0.6 MPa. This threshold is at least an order of magnitude larger than the reported triggering threshold of non-volcanic tremors (2–60 kPa) and earthquakes in geothermal fields (5 kPa) and near shale gas production sites (0.2–0.4 kPa), which may result from differences in effective normal stress, fault friction, the density of nucleation sites in these systems, or triggering mechanisms. We conclude that shallow frictional heterogeneity can explain both the spontaneous and dynamically triggered creep events on the Superstition Hills Fault.