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Talc-bearing serpentinite and the creeping section of the San Andreas fault


The section of the San Andreas fault located between Cholame Valley and San Juan Bautista in central California creeps at a rate as high as 28 mm yr-1 (ref. 1), and it is also the segment that yields the best evidence for being a weak fault embedded in a strong crust2,3,4,5. Serpentinized ultramafic rocks have been associated with creeping faults in central and northern California6,7,8, and serpentinite is commonly invoked as the cause of the creep and the low strength of this section of the San Andreas fault. However, the frictional strengths of serpentine minerals are too high to satisfy the limitations on fault strength, and these minerals also have the potential for unstable slip under some conditions9,10. Here we report the discovery of talc in cuttings of serpentinite collected from the probable active trace of the San Andreas fault that was intersected during drilling of the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD) main hole in 2005. We infer that the talc is forming as a result of the reaction of serpentine minerals with silica-saturated hydrothermal fluids that migrate up the fault zone, and the talc commonly occurs in sheared serpentinite. This discovery is significant, as the frictional strength of talc at elevated temperatures is sufficiently low to meet the constraints on the shear strength of the fault, and its inherently stable sliding behaviour is consistent with fault creep11. Talc may therefore provide the connection between serpentinite and creep in the San Andreas fault, if shear at depth can become localized along a talc-rich principal-slip surface within serpentinite entrained in the fault zone.

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Figure 1: Distribution of serpentinite along the SAF creeping section.
Figure 2: Shear strength versus fault depth.
Figure 3: Talc occurrences in serpentinite grains.


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Correspondence to Diane E. Moore.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains a Supplementary Figure 1 showing the relative positions of features of the active trace in the SAFOD drillhole and a Supplementary Table 1 of representative compositions of talc, serpentine, and saponite obtained by electron microprobe techniques. (PDF 196 kb)

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Moore, D., Rymer, M. Talc-bearing serpentinite and the creeping section of the San Andreas fault. Nature 448, 795–797 (2007).

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