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Slip rate variations on normal faults during glacial–interglacial changes in surface loads


Geologic and palaeoseismological data1,2 document a marked increase in the slip rates of the Wasatch fault and three adjacent normal faults in the Basin and Range Province during the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene epochs3. The cause of this synchronous acceleration of fault slip and the subsequent clustering of earthquakes during the Holocene3 has remained enigmatic, although it has been suggested that the coincidence between the acceleration of slip and the shrinkage of Lake Bonneville after the Last Glacial Maximum may indicate a causal relationship4. Here we use finite-element models of a discrete normal fault within a rheologically layered lithosphere to evaluate the relative importance of two competing processes that affect fault slip: postglacial unloading (the removal of mass), which decreases the slip rate, and lithospheric rebound, which promotes faster slip. We show that lithospheric rebound caused by regression of Lake Bonneville4,5,6 and deglaciation of adjacent mountain ranges7,8 provides a feasible mechanism for the high Holocene rates of faulting in the Wasatch region. Our analysis implies that climate-controlled changes in loads applied to Earth's surface may exert a fundamental control on the slip history of individual normal faults.

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Figure 1: Set-up of the finite element model with a discrete normal fault.
Figure 2: Response of the model normal fault to loading and unloading.
Figure 3: Results of a model simulating normal faulting in the Wasatch region.


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We thank A. Friedrich and A. Densmore for discussions. R.H. was supported by a Heisenberg fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG).

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Correspondence to Ralf Hetzel.

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Hetzel, R., Hampel, A. Slip rate variations on normal faults during glacial–interglacial changes in surface loads. Nature 435, 81–84 (2005).

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