The impact of splay faults on fluid flow, solute transport, and pore pressure distribution in subduction zones: A case study offshore the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Rachel M. Lauer, Demian M. Saffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

15 Scopus citations


Observations of seafloor seeps on the continental slope of many subduction zones illustrate that splay faults represent a primary hydraulic connection to the plate boundary at depth, carry deeply sourced fluids to the seafloor, and are in some cases associated with mud volcanoes. However, the role of these structures in forearc hydrogeology remains poorly quantified. We use a 2-D numerical model that simulates coupled fluid flow and solute transport driven by fluid sources from tectonically driven compaction and smectite transformation to investigate the effects of permeable splay faults on solute transport and pore pressure distribution. We focus on the Nicoya margin of Costa Rica as a case study, where previous modeling and field studies constrain flow rates, thermal structure, and margin geology. In our simulations, splay faults accommodate up to 33% of the total dewatering flux, primarily along faults that outcrop within 25 km of the trench. The distribution and fate of dehydration-derived fluids is strongly dependent on thermal structure, which determines the locus of smectite transformation. In simulations of a cold end-member margin, smectite transformation initiates 30 km from the trench, and 64% of the dehydration-derived fluids are intercepted by splay faults and carried to the middle and upper slope, rather than exiting at the trench. For a warm end-member, smectite transformation initiates 7 km from the trench, and the associated fluids are primarily transmitted to the trench via the décollement (50%), and faults intercept only 21% of these fluids. For a wide range of splay fault permeabilities, simulated fluid pressures are near lithostatic where the faults intersect overlying slope sediments, providing a viable mechanism for the formation of mud volcanoes. Key Points: Splay faults intercept and transmit deeply sourced fluids The distribution of dehydration fluids is controlled by thermal structure Results provide mechanism for the formation of mud volcanoes on the upper slope

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1089-1104
Number of pages16
JournalGeochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology

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