Abstract Evidence for coseismic temperature rise that induces dynamic weakening is challenging to directly observe and quantify in natural and experimental fault rocks. Hematite (U-Th)/He (hematite He) thermochronometry may serve as a fault-slip thermometer, sensitive to transient high temperatures associated with earthquakes. We test this hypothesis with hematite deformation experiments at seismic slip rates, using a rotary-shear geometry with an annular ring of silicon carbide (SiC) sliding against a specular hematite slab. Hematite is characterized before and after sliding via textural and hematite He analyses to quantify He loss over variable experimental conditions. Experiments yield slip surfaces localized in an ∼5–30-µm-thick layer of hematite gouge with <300-µm-diameter fault mirror (FM) zones made of sintered nanoparticles. Hematite He analyses of undeformed starting material are compared with those of FM and gouge run products from high-slip-velocity experiments, showing >71% ± 1% (1σ) and 18% ± 3% He loss, respectively. Documented He loss requires short-duration, high temperatures during slip. The spatial heterogeneity and enhanced He loss from FM zones are consistent with asperity flash heating (AFH). Asperities >200–300 µm in diameter, producing temperatures >900 °C for ∼1 ms, can explain observed He loss. Results provide new empirical evidence describing AFH and the rolemore »
Thermochronometric and textural evidence for seismicity via asperity flash heating on exhumed hematite fault mirrors, Wasatch fault zone, UT, USA
Exhumed faults record the temperatures produced by earthquakes. We show that transient elevated fault surface temperatures preserved in the rock record are quantifiable through microtextural analysis, fault-rock thermochronometry, and thermomechanical modeling. We apply this approach to a network of mirrored, minor, hematite-coated fault surfaces in the exhumed, seismogenic Wasatch fault zone, UT, USA. Polygonal and lobate hematite crystal morphologies, coupled with hematite (U–Th)/He data patterns from these surfaces and host rock apatite (U–Th)/He data, are best explained by friction-generated heat at slip interface geometric asperities. These observations inform thermomechanical simulations of flash heating at frictional contacts and resulting fractional He loss over generated fault surface time–temperature histories. Temperatures of >∼700–1200 °C, depending on asperity size, are sufficient to induce 85–100% He loss from hematite within 200 μm of the fault surface. Spatially-isolated, high-temperature microtextures imply spatially-variable heat generation and decay. Our results reveal that flash heating of asperities and associated frictional weakening likely promote small earthquakes (Mw≈−3 to 3) on Wasatch hematite fault mirrors. We suggest that similar thermal processes and resultant dynamic weakening may facilitate larger earthquakes.
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- Earth and planetary science letters
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- National Science Foundation
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