Intermediate-depth earthquake faulting by dehydration embrittlement with negative volume change

Nature. 2004 Apr 1;428(6982):545-9. doi: 10.1038/nature02412.

Abstract

Earthquakes are observed to occur in subduction zones to depths of approximately 680 km, even though unassisted brittle failure is inhibited at depths greater than about 50 km, owing to the high pressures and temperatures. It is thought that such earthquakes (particularly those at intermediate depths of 50-300 km) may instead be triggered by embrittlement accompanying dehydration of hydrous minerals, principally serpentine. A problem with failure by serpentine dehydration is that the volume change accompanying dehydration becomes negative at pressures of 2-4 GPa (60-120 km depth), above which brittle fracture mechanics predicts that the instability should be quenched. Here we show that dehydration of antigorite serpentinite under stress results in faults delineated by ultrafine-grained solid reaction products formed during dehydration. This phenomenon was observed under all conditions tested (pressures of 1-6 GPa; temperatures of 650-820 degrees C), independent of the sign of the volume change of reaction. Although this result contradicts expectations from fracture mechanics, it can be explained by separation of fluid from solid residue before and during faulting, a hypothesis supported by our observations. These observations confirm that dehydration embrittlement is a viable mechanism for nucleating earthquakes independent of depth, as long as there are hydrous minerals breaking down under a differential stress.