The importance of strike-slip faulting was recognized near the turn of the century, chiefly from investigations of surficial offsets associated with major earthquakes in New Zealand, Japan, and California. Extrapolation from observed horizontal displacements during single earthquakes to more abstract concepts of long-term, slow accumulation of hundreds of kilometers of horizontal translation over geologic time, however, came almost simultaneously from several parts of the world, but only after much regional geologic mapping and synthesis.
Strike-slip faults are classified either as transform faults which cut the lithosphere as plate boundaries, or as transcurrent faults which are confined to the crust. Each class of faults may be subdivided further according to their plate or intraplate tectonic function. A mechanical understanding of strike-slip faults has grown out of laboratory model studies which give a theoretical basis to relate faulting to concepts of pure shear or simple shear. Conjugate sets of strike-slip faults form in pure shear, typically across the strike of a convergent orogenic belt. Fault lengths are generally less than 100 km, and displacements along them are measurable in a few to tens of kilometers. Major strike-slip faults form in regional belts of simple shear, typically parallel to orogenic belts; indeed, recognition of the role strike-slip faults play in ancient orogenic belts is becoming increasingly commonplace as regional mapping becomes more detailed and complete. The lengths and displacements of the great strike-slip faults range in the hundreds of kilometers.
The position and orientation of associated folds, local domains of extension and shortening, and related fractures and faults depend on the bending or stepping geometry of the strike-slip fault or fault zone, and thus the degree of convergent or divergent strike slip. Elongate basins, ranging from sag ponds to rhombochasms, form as result of extension in domains of divergent strike slip such as releasing bends; pull-apart basins evolve between overstepping strike-slip faults. The arrangement of strike-slip faults which bound basins is tulip-shaped in profiles normal to strike. Elongate uplifts, ranging from pressure ridges to long, low hills or small mountain ranges, form as a result of crustal shortening in zones of convergent strike slip; they are bounded by an arrangement of strike-slip faults having the profile of a palm tree.
Paleoseismic investigations imply that earthquakes occur more frequently on strike-slip faults than on intraplate normal and reverse faults. Active strike-slip faults also differ from other types of faults in that they evince fault creep, which is largely a surficial phenomenon driven by elastic loading of the crust at seismogenic depths. Creep may be steady state or episodic, pre-seismic, co-seismic, or post-seismic, depending on the constitutive properties of the fault zone and the nature of the static strain field, among a number of other factors which are incompletely understood. Recent studies have identified relations between strike-slip faults and crustal delamination at or near the seismogenic zone, giving a mechanism for regional rotation and translation of crustal slabs and flakes, but how general and widespread are these phenomena, and how the mechanisms operate that drive these detachment tectonics are questions that require additional observations, data, and modeling.
Several fundamental problems remain poorly understood, including the nature of formation of en echelon folds and their relation to strike-slip faulting; the effect of mechanical stratigraphy on strike-slip-fault structural styles; the thermal and stress states along transform plate boundaries; and the discrepancy between recent geological and historical fault-slip rates relative to more rapid rates of slip determined from analyses of sea-floor magnetic anomalies. Many of the concepts and problems concerning strike-slip faults are derived from nearly a century of study of the San Andreas fault and have added much information, but solutions to several remaining and new fundamental problems will come when more attention is focused on other, less well studied strike-slip faults.