Many low-angle normal faults (dip ≤30°) accommodate tens of kilometers of crustal extension, but their mechanics remain contentious. Most models for low-angle normal fault slip assume vertical maximum principal stress σ1, leading many authors to conclude that low-angle normal faults are poorly oriented in the stress field (≥60° from σ1) and weak (low friction). In contrast, models for low-angle normal fault formation in isotropic rocks typically assume Coulomb failure and require inclined σ1 (no misorientation). Here, a data-based, mechanical-tectonic model is presented for formation of the Whipple detachment fault, southeastern California. The model honors local and regional geologic and tectonic history and laboratory friction measurements. The Whipple detachment fault formed progressively in the brittle-plastic transition by linking of “minidetachments,” which are small-scale analogs (meters to kilometers in length) in the upper footwall.
Minidetachments followed mylonitic anisotropy along planes of maximum shear stress (45° from the maximum principal stress), not Coulomb fractures. They evolved from mylonitic flow to cataclasis and frictional slip at 300−400 °C and ∼9.5 km depth, while fluid pressure fell from lithostatic to hydrostatic levels. Minidetachment friction was presumably high (0.6−0.85), based upon formation of quartzofeldspathic cataclasite and pseudotachylyte. Similar mechanics are inferred for both the minidetachments and the Whipple detachment fault, driven by high differential stress (∼150−160 MPa). A Mohr construction is presented with the fault dip as the main free parameter. Using “Byerlee friction” (0.6−0.85) on the minidetachments and the Whipple detachment fault, and internal friction (1.0−1.7) on newly formed Reidel shears, the initial fault dips are calculated at 16°−26°, with σ1 plunging ∼61°−71° northeast. Linked minidetachments probably were not well aligned, and slip on the evolving Whipple detachment fault probably contributed to fault smoothing, by off-fault fracturing and cataclasis, and to formation of the fault core and fractured damage zone.
Stress rotation may have occurred only within the mylonitic shear zone, but asymmetric tectonic forces applied to the brittle crust probably caused gradual rotation of σ1 above it as a result of: (1) the upward force applied to the base of marginal North America by buoyant asthenosphere upwelling into an opening slab-free window and/or (2) basal, top-to-the-NE shear traction due to midcrustal mylonitic flow during tectonic exhumation of the Orocopia Schist. The mechanical-tectonic model probably applies directly to low-angle normal faults of the lower Colorado River extensional corridor, and aspects of the model (e.g., significance of anisotropy, stress rotation) likely apply to formation of other strong low-angle normal faults.