Fluids play a critical role in natural and human-induced rock failure. It is unclear, however, if propagation of a tensile fracture is inherently an episodic or continuous process. For example, typical average propagation speeds of hydraulic fracture tips on the order of 1–10 m/min suggest continuous crack growth, possibly at subcritical stress intensities. In contrast, using field observations and numerical and mathematical analyses, we show that fracture growth due to anthropogenic hydraulic fracturing is most likely to occur in an episodic fashion, characterized by stick-split behavior that is analogous to stick-slip motion of earthquakes. The stick-split mechanism is regulated by cyclic variations in fluid pressure near the crack tip, in which each successive failure produces a local pressure drop that temporarily halts or slows fracture propagation. A pressure drop results in partial fracture closure, producing noncontinuous fracture propagation through a process that is reminiscent of hand clapping. Rupture speeds for individual failure events are on the order of the shear-wave velocity of the medium; thus, continuous crack growth is not a likely mechanism for anthropogenic hydraulic fracturing treatments despite slow average tip propagation speeds.

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