Collaborative Research: Physical properties of the Alpine Fault, New Zealand: Mechanical and hydrological processes in the brittle fault core and surrounding damage zone

Project: Research project

Project Details


Scientists have long known that most large, destructive earthquakes are caused by the slow buildup of stress on fault zones at the boundaries between tectonic plates. Friction between the two sides of the fault holds it together and prevents slip while stress accumulates until the point of failure, precipitating the earthquake itself. However, the nature of how and why that failure occurs and grows into a large earthquake remains poorly understood. It is thought to be governed in large part by the materials that make up the fault zone ? the rock that is fractured and broken down by past earthquakes and the water that fills pore spaces in that rock, as well as the tectonic stresses at the depth of earthquakes.

To further our understanding of how faults work, an international team of scientists is conducting a 3-stage project to drill into New Zealand?s Alpine Fault, a major fault zone similar to the San Andreas of California, with a history of magnitude 7-8 earthquakes, and future potential for more. Drilling into the Alpine Fault will provide fresh samples from the fault zone unaltered by the negative effects of earth-surface weathering and erosion. The first stage, already drilled to 150 meters depth, obtained core samples across the fault zone and made measurements of the rock properties made by instruments placed down the holes. In the next stage, one or more holes will be drilled to more than 1500 meters depth, and is intended to sample across the fault at earthquake depths. As part of that effort, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Penn State University partnership will measure a range of properties of these samples, including their strength (friction-based resistance to slip and the capacity to store up strain without breaking), permeability to pore water movement, and the speeds with which they transmit two types of seismic waves (a widely used way to measure rock properties remotely) under realistic conditions.

Furthermore, instruments lowered down the drill holes will be used to measure similar and additional properties at a broader scale. Using the results of sample and the drillhole data, the investigators will evaluate competing hypotheses for the strength of fault zones and the conditions therein, helping discover what happens inside faults between earthquakes, and how they may change leading up to future seismic activity. They will also evaluate the nature of groundwater flow (or lack thereof) in and around the fault zone at depth, important for understanding the pressure and temperature conditions during fault activity. This research, when combined with the complementary work by New Zealand-based collaborators and others, will yield a new understanding of how fault zones work and why earthquakes happen in the ways that they do. It will likely also yield new clues to understanding the future earthquake hazard on the Alpine Fault in particular and on major faults in general.

Effective start/end date9/1/128/31/16


  • National Science Foundation: $316,000.00


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