Off-fault damage and acoustic emission distributions during the evolution of structurally complex faults over series of stick-slip events


Variations in fault structure, for example, surface roughness and deformation zone width, influence the location and dynamics of large earthquakes as well as the distribution of small seismic events. In nature, changes in fault roughness and seismicity characteristics can rarely be studied simultaneously, so that little is known about their interaction and evolution. Here, we investigate the connection between fault structure and near-fault distributions of seismic events over series of stick-slip cycles in the laboratory. We conducted a set of experiments on rough faults that developed from incipient fracture surfaces. We monitored stress and seismic activity which occurred in the form of acoustic emissions (AEs). We determined AE density distributions as a function of fault normal distance based on high-accuracy hypocentre locations during subsequent interslip periods. The characteristics of these distributions were closely connected to different structural units of the faults, that is, the fault core, off-fault and background damage zone. The core deformation zone was characterized by consistently high seismic activity, whereas the off-fault damage zone displayed a power-law decay of seismic activity with increasing distance from the fault core. The exponents of the power-law-distributed off-fault activity increased with successive stick-slip events so that later interslip periods showed a more rapid spatial decay of seismic activity from the fault. The increase in exponents was strongest during the first one to three interslip periods and reached approximately constant values thereafter. The relatively rapid spatial decay of AE events during later interslip periods is likely an expression of decreasing fault zone complexity and roughness. Our results indicate a close relationship between fault structure, stress and seismic off-fault activity. A more extensive mapping of seismic off-fault activity-decay has the potential to significantly advance the understanding of fault zone properties including variations in fault roughness and stress. © The Authors 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Astronomical Society.

Publication Title

Geophysical Journal International