Frictional processes of clay-rich gouges at seismic slip rates

  • Stefano Aretusini

Student thesis: Phd


Smectite clay minerals are among the most common minerals in subduction zone megathrusts faults at shallow depth and in landslide decollements. Consequently, deformation processes at seismic slip rates (ca. 1 m/s) in smectites contribute to control the mechanics of megathrust earthquakes and landslide collapses. To investigate the deformation processes, rotary shear experiments on smectite-rich gouge layers (70/30 wt.% Ca-montmorillonite/opal) were performed. The experiments were conducted at ambient temperature and at 5 MPa normal stress. The gouges were sheared under vacuum (< 0.001 mbar) and room humidity (i.e., water depleted) or in the presence of liquid water (i.e., water rich) conditions, at slip rates of 0.0003 < V < 1.5 m/s and displacements of 0.1 < d < 30 m. The temperature evolution with slip was measured with thermocouples and modelled numerically. Permeability of the gouge layer was measured with the pore pressure oscillation method prior to the rotary experiments. Before and after the experiments, the mineral and amorphous material content in wt.% were determined via quantitative X-ray powder diffraction and the microstructures investigated via scanning and transmission electron microscopy. The activation of deformation processes was strongly controlled by the water content of the gouge layers. Under water depleted conditions, grainsize reduction producing nanoparticles controlled the evolution of the friction coefficient f at all slip rates. Coseismic dynamic weakening (f = 0.2 - 0.3) occurred by combined thermal decomposition or melting (with decreasing water content) and pressurization of water released by dehydration of smectite interlayer. Under water rich conditions, grain size reduction was minor and development of nano-foliations occurred. At all slip rates, the friction coefficient rapidly decreased at the onset of slip. The large initial weakening (to f < 0.15) was due to the presence of a film of water lubricating the surfaces of the sub-parallel smectite grains forming the nano-foliation in combination with shear-enhanced water pressurization. Then, friction coefficient evolved depending on the balance between dissipation of pore pressures, dehydration of smectite interlayer and thickening of the nano-foliation layers. At higher displacement and slip rates, sustained dynamic weakening was aided by vaporization of pore water. Expulsion of water determined a switch to deformation processes typical of water depleted conditions. In nature, the presence of liquid water in smectites has a lubricating effect, pressurizes the slipping zone and renders the smectite-rich gouges prone to accommodate large seismic slips. During megathrust earthquakes, such lubricating effect may result in the easy propagation of seismic ruptures in smectite- and water-rich sediments at shallow depths. Similarly, the presence of water can promote large displacements during landslide collapse.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStephen Covey-Crump (Supervisor) & Elena Anna Spagnuolo (Supervisor)


  • deformation processes
  • landslide
  • smectite
  • earthquake
  • friction coefficient

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