Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Extreme hydrothermal conditions at an active plate-bounding fault


Temperature and fluid pressure conditions control rock deformation and mineralization on geological faults, and hence the distribution of earthquakes1. Typical intraplate continental crust has hydrostatic fluid pressure and a near-surface thermal gradient of 31 ± 15 degrees Celsius per kilometre2,3. At temperatures above 300–450 degrees Celsius, usually found at depths greater than 10–15 kilometres, the intra-crystalline plasticity of quartz and feldspar relieves stress by aseismic creep and earthquakes are infrequent. Hydrothermal conditions control the stability of mineral phases and hence frictional–mechanical processes associated with earthquake rupture cycles, but there are few temperature and fluid pressure data from active plate-bounding faults. Here we report results from a borehole drilled into the upper part of the Alpine Fault, which is late in its cycle of stress accumulation and expected to rupture in a magnitude 8 earthquake in the coming decades4,5. The borehole (depth 893 metres) revealed a pore fluid pressure gradient exceeding 9 ± 1 per cent above hydrostatic levels and an average geothermal gradient of 125 ± 55 degrees Celsius per kilometre within the hanging wall of the fault. These extreme hydrothermal conditions result from rapid fault movement, which transports rock and heat from depth, and topographically driven fluid movement that concentrates heat into valleys. Shear heating may occur within the fault but is not required to explain our observations. Our data and models show that highly anomalous fluid pressure and temperature gradients in the upper part of the seismogenic zone can be created by positive feedbacks between processes of fault slip, rock fracturing and alteration, and landscape development at plate-bounding faults.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Global context and regional setting.
Figure 2: DFDP-2B borehole results.
Figure 3: Thermal and fluid flow models.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Sibson, R. H. Fault zone models, heat flow, and the depth distribution of earthquakes in the continental crust of the United States. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 72, 151–163 (1982)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Pollack, H. N., Hurter, S. J. & Johnson, J. R. Heat flow from the Earth’s interior: analysis of the global data set. Rev. Geophys. 31, 267–280 (1993)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Townend, J. & Zoback, M. D. How faulting keeps the crust strong. Geology 28, 399–402 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Cochran, U. et al. A plate boundary earthquake record from a wetland adjacent to the Alpine fault in New Zealand refines hazard estimates. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 464, 175–188 (2017)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Sutherland, R . et al. in A Continental Plate Boundary: Tectonics at South Island, New Zealand Geophysical Monograph Series (eds Okaya, D ., Stern, T. A . & Davey, F .) 235–251 (American Geophysical Union, 2007)

  6. Byerlee, J. Friction of rocks. Pure Appl. Geophys. 116, 615–626 (1978)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Townend, J. & Zoback, M. D. Regional tectonic stress near the San Andreas fault in central and southern California. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L15S11 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Zoback, M. D ., Hickman, S. & Ellsworth, W. in Treatise on Geophysics (ed. Schubert, G. ) 649–674 (Elsevier, 2007)

  9. Fulton, P. M., Saffer, D. M., Harris, R. N. & Bekins, B. A. Re-evaluation of heat flow data near Parkfield, CA: evidence for a weak San Andreas Fault. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L15S15 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fulton, P. et al. Low coseismic friction on the Tohoku-Oki fault determined from temperature measurements. Science 342, 1214–1217 (2013)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Kano, Y. et al. Heat signature on the Chelungpu fault associated with the 1999 Chi-Chi, Taiwan earthquake. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L14306 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Li, H. et al. Long-term temperature records following the Mw 7.9 Wenchuan (China) earthquake are consistent with low friction. Geology 43, 163–166 (2015)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Di Toro, G. et al. Fault lubrication during earthquakes. Nature 471, 494–498 (2011)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Kanamori, H. & Brodsky, E. E. The physics of earthquakes. Rep. Prog. Phys. 67, 1429–1496 (2004)

    Article  MathSciNet  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Dieterich, J. H. Modeling of rock friction: 1. Experimental results and constitutive equations. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 84, 2161–2168 (1979)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Carpenter, B., Marone, C. & Saffer, D. Weakness of the San Andreas Fault revealed by samples from the active fault zone. Nat. Geosci. 4, 251–254 (2011)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Wibberley, C. A. & Shimamoto, T. Earthquake slip weakening and asperities explained by thermal pressurization. Nature 436, 689–692 (2005)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Ohtani, T. et al. Fault rocks and past to recent fluid characteristics from the borehole survey of the Nojima fault ruptured in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, southwest Japan. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 105, 16161–16171 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ma, K. F. et al. Slip zone and energetics of a large earthquake from the Taiwan Chelungpu-fault Drilling Project. Nature 444, 473–476 (2006)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Williams, C. F., Grubb, F. V. & Galanis, S. P. Heat flow in the SAFOD pilot hole and implications for the strength of the San Andreas Fault. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L15S14 (2004)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Chester, F. M. et al. Structure and composition of the plate-boundary slip zone for the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Science 342, 1208–1211 (2013)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Kitagawa, Y., Fujimori, K. & Koizumi, N. Temporal change in permeability of the Nojima fault zone by repeated water injection experiments. Tectonophysics 443, 183–192 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Morrow, C. A., Moore, D. E. & Lockner, D. A. Permeability reduction in granite under hydrothermal conditions. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 106, 30551–30560 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Brenguier, F. et al. Postseismic relaxation along the San Andreas fault at Parkfield from continuous seismological observations. Science 321, 1478–1481 (2008)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Schaff, D. P. & Beroza, G. C. Coseismic and postseismic velocity changes measured by repeating earthquakes. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 109, B10302 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Xue, L. et al. Continuous permeability measurements record healing inside the Wenchuan earthquake fault zone. Science 340, 1555–1559 (2013)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Norris, R. J. & Cooper, A. F. in A Continental Plate Boundary: Tectonics at South Island, New Zealand Geophysical Monograph Series (eds Okaya, D ., Stern, T. A . & Davey, F. ) 157–175 (American Geophysical Union, 2007)

  28. Townend, J. Heat flow through the West Coast, South Island, New Zealand. N. Z. J. Geol. Geophys. 42, 21–31 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Sutherland, R. et al. Drilling reveals fluid control on architecture and rupture of the Alpine fault, New Zealand. Geology 40, 1143–1146 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Cox, S. et al. Changes in hot spring temperature and hydrogeology of the Alpine Fault hanging wall, New Zealand, induced by distal South Island earthquakes. Geofluids 15, 216–239 (2015)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Craw, D. Shallow-level metamorphic fluids in a high uplift rate metamorphic belt; Alpine schist, New Zealand. J. Metamorph. Geol. 6, 1–16 (1988)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. Upton, P., Koons, P. O. & Chamberlain, C. P. Penetration of deformation-driven meteoric water into ductile rocks; isotopic and model observations from the Southern Alps, New Zealand. N. Z. J. Geol. Geophys. 38, 535–543 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Hartog, A. in Optical Fiber Sensor Technology 241–301 (Springer, 2000)

  34. Sutherland, R. et al. Deep Fault Drilling Project (DFDP), Alpine Fault boreholes DFDP-2A and DFDP-2B technical completion report. GNS Sci. Rep. 2015, 1–269 (2015)

    Google Scholar 

  35. Upton, P. & Koons, P. O. in A Continental Plate Boundary: Tectonics at South Island, New Zealand Vol. 175 (eds Okaya, D., Stern, T. A. & Davey, F. ) 253–270 (American Geophysical Union, 2007)

    Google Scholar 

  36. Sutherland, R . et al. Deep Fault Drilling Project DFDP-1 and -2. Operational Datasets version 1, (GFZ Data Services, 2017)

Download references


We thank the Friend family for land access and the Westland community for support; Schlumberger for assistance with optical fibre technology; A. Benson, R. Conze, R. Marx, B. Pooley, A. Pyne and S. Yeo for engineering and site support; the CNRS University of Montpellier wireline logging group of P. Pezard, G. Henry, O. Nitsch and J. Paris; Arnold Contracting; Eco Drilling; and Webster Drilling. Funding was provided by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP), the NZ Marsden Fund, GNS Science, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Otago, the NZ Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment, NERC grants NE/J022128/1 and NE/J024449/1, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research VIDI grant 854.12.011 and the ERC starting grant SEISMIC 335915. ICDP provided expert review, staff training and technical guidance.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



The drilling experiment and this paper were led by R.S., J.T. and V.T. Thermal and hydraulic modelling and pre-drill planning were done by P.U., J.C., N.W., D.T., C.M. and A.H. All authors except N.G.R.B., N.W. and D.T. contributed to science goals on-site during drilling. Post-drill optical fibre temperature measurements and analysis were performed by R.S., N.G.R.B., L.J.-C., C.C., L.-M.B. and A.H.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rupert Sutherland.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Borehole temperature measurements taken on successive dates (year/month/day).

Grey lines indicate measurements using logging tools; coloured lines those taken using DTS.

Extended Data Figure 2 Enlargement of borehole temperature measurements, showing that the magnitude of DTS temperature changes with time.

Extended Data Figure 3 Bulk mean thermal diffusivity profile for borehole DFDP-2B.

Data inferred from quantitative X-ray diffraction analysis of rock cuttings (geometric mean of mineral-specific diffusivities).

Extended Data Figure 4 Three-dimensional model mesh geometry with variable node spacing of 200 m, 500 m or 1,000 m


Extended Data Figure 5 Fit of FEFLOW models to observations at DFDP-2B by varying parameters.

Variable parameters are the (uniform) hanging-wall permeability to 3 km below sea level, and the dip-slip rate on the Alpine Fault. White dots indicate the parameter combinations of specific models. RMS, root mean square.

Extended Data Figure 6 Temperature profiles predicted by models (colour) compared to observations at DFDP-2B (black).

(m asl, metres above sea level.)

Extended Data Figure 7 Shallow temperature gradient predicted by models at DFDP-1B.

Note that the temperature gradient may be slightly over-estimated by the model, because local fault curvature is not accurately resolved by our model and the DFDP-1B location is placed slightly farther into the base of the hanging wall in the model than it is in reality.

Extended Data Table 1 Pore fluid pressure head, H, determined from borehole length, L, equilibrium mud level, M, and mud density, D
Extended Data Table 2 Mean pore fluid pressure heads, H, and standard errors, SH, determined for each borehole length, L, and true vertical depth, TVD

PowerPoint slides

Source data

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sutherland, R., Townend, J., Toy, V. et al. Extreme hydrothermal conditions at an active plate-bounding fault. Nature 546, 137–140 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing