Reading: Faults

A fault is a planar surface within the earth, along which rocks have broken and slid. Faults are caused by elastic strain that culminates in brittle failure. The rocks on either side of a fault have shifted in opposite directions, called the offset directions. If a fault is not vertical, there are rocks above the fault and rocks beneath the fault.

  • The rocks above a fault are called the hanging wall.
  • The rocks beneath a fault are called the footwall.

Normal and Detachment Faults

In a normal fault, the hanging wall has moved down relative to the footwall.

Diagram of a normal fault A detachment fault is a particular kind of normal fault that generally dips at a low angle. It separates rocks that were deep in the crust and ductile (granite and gneiss) from rocks of the upper crust (sedimentary or volcanic) that were brittle. Detachment faults occur along the boundaries of metamorphic core complexes (see below).

Normal and detachment faults form in sections of the crust that are undergoing tension, places where the crust is being stretched apart. A divergent plate boundary is a zone of large normal faults. Normal faults also occur in other zones of crustal tension, such as in the Basin and Range landscape region of the western United States.

Reverse and Thrust Faults

In a reverse or thrust fault, the hanging wall has moved up relative to the footwall. The difference between a reverse fault and a thrust fault is that a reverse fault has a steeper dip, more than 30°.

Diagram of a reverse fault and a thrust fault.
Reverse and thrust faults form in sections of the crust that are undergoing compression. A convergent plate boundary is a zone of major reverse and thrust faults. In fact, subduction zones are sometimes referred to as mega-thrust faults. Reverse and thrust faults also occur in other settings where the crust is being compressed, such as the Transverse Mountain Ranges, just north of Los Angeles.

Diagram of a strike-slip fault

Strike-Slip Faults

Strike-slip faults are steep or vertical faults along which the rocks on either side have moved horizontally in opposite directions. A transform plate boundary is a zone of large strike-slip faults. The San Andreas fault is an example of a major strike-slip fault at a transform boundary. Strike-slip faults also occur in other settings.