This article reviews geologic and other evidence constraining the thickness of the principal slip zone (PSZ) that accommodates the bulk of coseismic shear displacement during an individual rupture event. Surface deformation from rupturing may occupy swaths tens of meters or more in width, but trenches across active faults generally reveal that incremental slip is accommodated by a PSZ that is tens of centimeters or less in thickness. Geomorphic evidence, coupled with the observations from trenching, suggest a PSZ may stay well localized for distances of several kilometers through many rupture episodes. Mine exposures and exhumed fault zones demonstrate that PSZs separating different lithologies within the “fault core,” although contained within “damage zones” of variably fractured rock ranging up to hundreds of meters in thickness, often comprise just a few centimeters of gouge/ultracataclasite that have accommodated large finite displacements (>1 km). Microstructural studies demonstrate incremental slip localized still further down to 1–10 mm, as do other fault-rock assemblages (slickensides and slickenfibers, fault-veins of pseudotachylyte friction-melt, intravein septa in hydrothermal fault infills). The accumulated evidence indicates that localization of coseismic shearing to less than 10 cm on planar faults is widespread throughout the crustal seismogenic zone, with extreme localization to less than 1 cm not uncommon. However, some distributed coseismic shear may also develop, especially at rupture irregularities.
Coseismic reduction of shear resistance from friction-melting (ΔT ∼ 1000°C) or from transient thermal pressurization of aqueous fluids (ΔT ∼ 100°C) requires slip during moderate-to-large earthquakes (u > 1 m) to be restricted to narrow zones, respectively a few centimeters or tens of centimeters in thickness. Given the evidence for slip localization, the apparent scarcity of pseudotachylyte suggests either that seismic friction-melting is a rare phenomenon, or that pseudotachylyte is only rarely preserved in recognizable form within mature hydrated fault zones.