The fault zone architecture of a thrust fault zone is critical for understanding the strain accommodation and structural evolution in contractional systems. The fault architecture is also important for understanding fluid-flow behavior both along and/or across thrust fault zones and for evaluating potential fault-related compartmentalization. Because mesoscale (1−100 m) structural features are normally beyond seismic resolution, high-resolution outcrop in situ mapping (5−10 cm resolution) was employed to study the deformation features of a thrust fault zone located in the Qaidam Basin, northeastern Tibetan Plateau. The excellent exposure of outcrops enables the detailed investigation of the Lenghu thrust fault zone and its architecture. The Lenghu thrust fault, a seismically resolvable fault with up to ∼800 m of throw, exhibits a large variation of fault architecture and strain distribution along the fault zone. Multiple structural domains with different levels of strain were observed and are associated with the fault throw distribution across the fault. Based on previously proposed models and high-resolution outcrop mapping, an updated fault zone model was constructed to characterize the structural features and evolution of the Lenghu thrust. The possible parameters that impact fault architecture and strain distribution, including fault throw, bed thickness, lithology, and mechanical heterogeneity, were evaluated. Fault throw distributions and linkages control the strain distribution across a thrust fault zone, with local folding processes contributing important elements in Lenghu, especially where more incompetent beds dominate the stratigraphy. Mechanical heterogeneity, induced by different layer stacking patterns, controls the details of the fault architecture in the thrust zone. The variations in bed thicknesses and mechanical property contrasts are likely to control the initial fault dips and fault/fracture density. Large fault throws are associated with wide strain accommodation and damage zones, although the relationship between the development and width of the fault zone and the throw accumulation remains to be assessed. By presenting the high-resolution mapping of fault architecture, this study provides an insight into the subseismic fault zone geometry and strain distributions possible in thrust faults and reviews their application to assessments of fault zone behavior.

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