The role of elasticity in simulating long-term tectonic extension

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Olive, Jean-Arthur
Behn, Mark D.
Mittelstaedt, Eric
Ito, Garrett T.
Klein, Benjamin Z.
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Mid-ocean ridge processes
Continental tectonics: extensional
Lithospheric flexure
Mechanics, theory, and modelling
While elasticity is a defining characteristic of the Earth's lithosphere, it is often ignored in numerical models of long-term tectonic processes in favour of a simpler viscoplastic description. Here we assess the consequences of this assumption on a well-studied geodynamic problem: the growth of normal faults at an extensional plate boundary. We conduct 2-D numerical simulations of extension in elastoplastic and viscoplastic layers using a finite difference, particle-in-cell numerical approach. Our models simulate a range of faulted layer thicknesses and extension rates, allowing us to quantify the role of elasticity on three key observables: fault-induced topography, fault rotation, and fault life span. In agreement with earlier studies, simulations carried out in elastoplastic layers produce rate-independent lithospheric flexure accompanied by rapid fault rotation and an inverse relationship between fault life span and faulted layer thickness. By contrast, models carried out with a viscoplastic lithosphere produce results that may qualitatively resemble the elastoplastic case, but depend strongly on the product of extension rate and layer viscosity U × ηL. When this product is high, fault growth initially generates little deformation of the footwall and hanging wall blocks, resulting in unrealistic, rigid block-offset in topography across the fault. This configuration progressively transitions into a regime where topographic decay associated with flexure is fully accommodated within the numerical domain. In addition, high U × ηL favours the sequential growth of multiple short-offset faults as opposed to a large-offset detachment. We interpret these results by comparing them to an analytical model for the fault-induced flexure of a thin viscous plate. The key to understanding the viscoplastic model results lies in the rate-dependence of the flexural wavelength of a viscous plate, and the strain rate dependence of the force increase associated with footwall and hanging wall bending. This behaviour produces unrealistic deformation patterns that can hinder the geological relevance of long-term rifting models that assume a viscoplastic rheology.
Author Posting. © Oxford University Press, 2016. This article is posted here by permission of Oxford University Press for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Geophysical Journal International 205 (2016): 728-743, doi:10.1093/gji/ggw044.
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Geophysical Journal International 205 (2016): 728-743
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