Abstract

The thickness of an active plate boundary fault is an important parameter for understanding the strength and spatial heterogeneity of fault behavior. We have compiled direct measurements of the thickness of subduction thrust faults from active and ancient examples observed by ocean drilling and field studies in accretionary wedges. We describe a general geometric model for subduction thrust décollements, which includes multiple simultaneously active, anastomosing fault strands tens of meters thick. The total thickness encompassing all simultaneously active strands increases to ∼100–350 m at ∼1–2 km below seafloor, and this thickness is maintained down to a depth of ∼15 km. Thin sharp faults representing earthquake slip surfaces or other discrete slip events are found within and along the edges of the tens-of-meters-thick fault strands. Although flattening, primary inherited chaotic fabrics, and fault migration through subducting sediments or the frontal prism may build mélange sections that are much thicker (to several kilometers), this thickness does not describe the active fault at any depth. These observations suggest that models should treat the subduction thrust plate boundary fault as <1–20 cm thick during earthquakes, with a concentration of postseismic and interseismic creep in single to several strands 5–35 m thick, with lesser distributed interseismic deformation in stratally disrupted rocks surrounding the fault strands.

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