V-shaped conjugate strike-slip faults occur widely on Earth, Venus, and Mars in the solar system. They commonly lie at 60°–75° in map view from the maximum compressive stress (σ1) direction. This fault pattern cannot be explained directly by the Coulomb fracture criterion, which predicts the formation of X-shaped shear fractures at 30° from the σ1 direction. Possible explanations of this odd fault geometry include rotation of early formed Coulomb fractures or reactivation of preexisting weakness. Here, we show that none of these mechanisms is feasible for the formation of a late Cenozoic conjugate strike-slip fault system in central Tibet. Instead, its initiation can be best explained by distributed deformation during the formation of two parallel and adjoining shear zones that have opposing senses of shear. Our suggestion is based on the current global positioning system (GPS) velocity field in Tibet, which can be divided into two east-trending shear zones: a northern left-slip zone consisting of active ENE-striking left-slip faults, and a southern right-slip zone consisting of active WNW-striking right-slip faults. The correlation between the GPS strain field and the fault pattern suggests that the central Tibet conjugate faults may have initiated as two sets of Riedel shears in the two parallel but separate shear zones. Because the two east-trending shear zones also experience north-south contraction, we refer to this mechanism of conjugate-fault formation as paired general-shear (PGS) deformation. Assuming a Newtonian fluid, the observed Tibetan GPS velocity field requires the paired shear zones to have formed either by gravitational spreading of the Tibetan lithosphere or a horizontal shear at the base of the upper crust or mantle lithosphere. We demonstrate the feasibility of the two inferred mechanisms for the formation of V-shaped conjugate faults using simple sandbox experiments. Our paired general-shear (PGS) model implies that the combined effect of the state of strain and the state of stress favors only one set (i.e., Riedel shear) of Coulomb conjugate shear fractures under general shear flow. It also requires continuum deformation rather than discrete extrusion tectonics as the most dominant mode of deformation during the late Cenozoic development of the central Tibetan Plateau.

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