, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 209-225

Fault patterns at outer trench walls

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Profiles across subduction-related trenches commonly show normal faulting of the outer trench wall. Such faulting is generally parallel or sub-parallel to the trench and is ascribed to tension in the upper part of the oceanic plate as it is bent into the subduction zone. A number of authors have noted that outer trench wall faulting may involve re-activation of the oceanic spreading fabric of the subducting plate, even when the trend of this fabric is noticeably oblique to the extensional stress direction. However, one previous review of outer trench wall fault patterns questioned the occurrence of a consistent link between fault orientation and such controlling factors. This latter study predated the widespread availability of swath bathymetry and longrange sidescan sonar data over trenches. Based only on profile data, it was unable to analyse fault patterns with the accuracy now possible. This paper therefore re-examines the relationship between outer trench wall faulting and the structure of the subduction zone and subducting plate using GLORIA and Seabeam swath mapping data from several locations around the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The principal conclusions is that the trend of outer trench wall faults is almost always controlled by either the subducting slab strike or by the inherited oceanic spreading fabric in the subducting plate. The latter control operates when the spreading fabric is oblique to the subducting slab strike by less than 25–30°; in all other cases the faults are parallel to slab strike (and parallel or sub-parallel to the trench). Where the angle between spreading fabric and slab strike is close to 30°, two fault trends may coexist; evidence from the Aleutian Trench indicates a gradual change from spreading fabric to slab strike control of fault trend as the angle between the two increases from 25 to 30°. The only observed exception to the above ‘rule’ of fault control comes from the western Aleutian Trench, where outer trench wall faults are oblique to the slab strike, almost perpendicular to the spreading fabric, and parallel to the convergence direction. Re-orientation of the extensional stress direction due to right-lateral shear at this highly oblique plate boundary is the best explanation of this apparently anomalous observation.