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Modelling fluid flow in complex natural fault zones : implications for natural and human-induced earthquake nucleation.

Snell, T. and De Paola, N. and van Hunen, J. and Nielsen, S. and Collettini, C. (2020) 'Modelling fluid flow in complex natural fault zones : implications for natural and human-induced earthquake nucleation.', Earth and planetary science letters., 530 . p. 115869.


Pore fluid overpressures in active fault systems can drive fluid flow and cause fault weakening and seismicity. In return, deformation accommodated by different modes of failure (e.g. brittle vs. ductile) also affects fault zone permeability and, hence, fluid flow and pore fluid pressure distribution. Current numerical simulation techniques model how fluid flow controls fault reactivation and associated seismicity. However, the control exerted by pore fluid pressure on the transition from slow aseismic fault sliding to fast seismic sliding, during the earthquake nucleation phase, is still poorly understood. Here, we model overpressured, supercritical CO2 fluid flow in natural faults, where non-linear, complex feedback between fluid flow, fluid pressure and fault deformation controls the length of the nucleation phase of an earthquake and the duration of the interseismic period. The model setup is an analogue for recent seismic source events in the Northern Apennines of Italy (e.g. Mw 6.0 1997-98 Colfiorito and Mw 6.5 2016 Norcia earthquakes). Our modelling results of Darcy fluid flow show that the duration of the nucleation phase can be reduced by orders of magnitude, when realistic models of fault zone architecture and pore pressure- and deformation-dependent permeability are considered. In particular, earthquake nucleation phase duration can drop from more than 10 years to a few days/minutes, while the seismic moment can decrease by a factor of 6. Notably, the moment of aseismic slip ( M0=109Nm ) obtained during the nucleation phase modelled in our study is of the same order as the detection limit of local strain measurements using strain meters. These findings have significant implications for earthquake early warning systems, as the duration and moment of the nucleation phase will affect the likelihood of timely precursory signal detection. Interestingly, aseismic slip has been measured up to a few months before some recent large earthquakes, although in a different tectonic context than the model developed here, rekindling interest in the nucleation phase of earthquakes. In addition, our results have important implications for short and long term earthquake forecasting, as crustal fluid migration during the interseismic period may control fault strength and earthquake recurrence intervals.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (
Date accepted:27 September 2019
Date deposited:06 November 2019
Date of first online publication:2019
Date first made open access:12 December 2019

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