High-stress creep preceding coseismic rupturing in amphibolite-facies ultramylonites


Coeval pseudotachylytes (solidified melts produced during seismic slip) and mylonites are generally regarded as the geological record of transient seismic events during dominant ductile flow. Thermal runaway has been proposed as a model to explain the pseudotachylyte-mylonite association. In the Mont Mary unit (Western Alps), pseudotachylyte fault veins occur along the amphibolite-facies (ca. 550°C; 0.35 GPa) ultramylonitic foliation of paragneisses. These veins formed at the same metamorphic conditions of the ultramylonites, thus potentially recording thermal runaway. We analysed the microstructure of quartz in ultramylonite and of ultramylonite clasts in pseudotachylyte to investigate the possible occurrence of thermal runaway. Quartz aggregates show an evolution under constant temperature to ultrafine-grained recrystallised grain size (2.5 $μ$m), reflecting creep under high differential stresses (> 200 MPa) and high strain rates (10textminus9 stextminus1), along very narrow foliation-parallel layers. In the ultrafine aggregates, viscous grain boundary sliding became dominant and promoted cavitation leading to disintegration of quartz aggregates and precipitation, in the pore space, of biotite, oriented parallel to the main ultramylonitic foliation. The strain rate-limiting process was aseismic fluid-assisted precipitation of biotite. The potential occurrence, at the deformation conditions of the Mont Mary ultramylonites, of thermal runaway in pure quartz layers was investigated by numerical modelling. The models predict a switch from stable flow to thermal runaway at background strain rates faster than 10textminus9 stextminus1 for critical differential stresses that are comparable to the brittle strength of rocks. Deformation of ultramylonites occurred close to the conditions for thermal runaway to occur, but based on the microstructural record we conclude that the Mont Mary pseudotachylyte-mylonite association is best explained by brittle failure, triggered by transients of high differential stress and strain rate causing a downward deflection of the brittle-ductile transition.

Earth and Planetary Science Letters