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This paper describes a new class of fault structure: the polygonal fault system. This complex fault system is composed of almost randomly oriented minor extensional faults organized in a polygonal network. The component faults are typically 500–1000 m long and have throws ranging from 10 to 100 m. They are closely spaced (200–400 m), and fault mapping is possible only with 3-D seismic data.

The polygonal fault system deforms Lower Tertiary shale sequences over a large part of the North Sea Basin and is restricted in extent to low-permeability facies in slope and basin plain regions. The faulted intervals are bounded above and below by completely undeformed sequences. These key observations are taken to suggest a genetic model in which the fault system formed through a compaction-related mechanism.

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