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Abstract

This paper summarizes the observations and methods that have been used to study the strength of active earthquake-generating (seismogenic) faults. Indirect inferences based upon a range of geophysical and geological observations suggest that faults fail in earthquakes at shear stresses of less than c. 50 MPa, equivalent to effective coefficients of friction of less than 0.3, and possibly as low as 0.05. These low levels of effective friction are likely to be the result of a combination of high pore fluid pressures, which could be local or transient, and the frictional properties of phyllosilicate-rich fault rocks. The dip angles of new faults forming in oceanic outer rises imply that intrinsically low-friction fault rocks must control the fault strength in at least that setting. When combined with the much higher fault strengths inferred from borehole studies and some laboratory measurements, the observations are most consistent with weak faults embedded in strong surroundings, providing a clear reason for the prevalence of fault reactivation. However, the conditions required for the formation of new faults, and the reasons for an apparent wide variability in the degree of fault healing through time, remain unknown.