Increasing evidence that the San Andreas fault has low shear strength1 has fuelled considerable discussion regarding the role of fluid pressure in controlling fault strength. Byerlee2,3 and Rice4 have shown how fluid pressure gradients within a fault zone can produce a fault with low strength while avoiding hydraulic fracture of the surrounding rock due to excessive fluid pressure. It may not be widely realised, however, that the same analysis2-4 shows that even in the absence of fluids, the presence of a relatively soft 'gouge' layer surrounded by harder country rock can also reduce the effective shear strength of the fault. As shown most recently by Byerlee and Savage5, as the shear stress across a fault increases, the stress state within the fault zone evolves to a limiting condition in which the maximum shear stress within the fault zone is parallel to the fault, which then slips with a lower apparent coefficient of friction than the same material unconstrained by the fault. Here we confirm the importance of fault geometry in determining the apparent weakness of fault zones, by showing that the apparent friction on a sawcut granite surface can be predicted from the friction measured in intact rock, given only the geometrical constraints introduced by the fault surfaces. This link between the sliding friction of faults and the internal friction of intact rock suggests a new approach to understanding the microphysical processes that underlie friction in brittle materials.
Additional publication details
How geometrical constraints contribute to the weakness of mature faults