Thermal-Stress and the Spacings of Transform Faults

Sandwell, DT.  1986.  Thermal-Stress and the Spacings of Transform Faults. Journal of Geophysical Research-Solid Earth and Planets. 91:6405-6417.

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Bathymetric charts are used with satellite altimeter profiles to locate major ridge-transform intersections along five spreading ridges. The ridges are the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the East Pacific Rise, the Chile Rise, the Pacific-Antarctic Rise, and the Southeast Indian Ridge. Analysis of these data show spacings between transform faults W increase linearly with spreading rate ν (W/ν = 6.28 m.y.). This linear correlation is explained by a thermoelastic model of a cooling strip of lithosphere spreading at a rate ν. The traction-free boundaries of the thin elastic strip simulate cracks in the lithosphere at transform faults. A two-dimensional thermoelastic solution for the in-plane stress shows the largest stress component is tensional and parallel to the ridge. Stresses are zero at the ridge and increase as (age)½ to a maximum value at an age of W/4ν. All stress components are small for ages greater than W/ν. When the transform spacing is large compared with the spreading rate (W/ν > 100 m.y.) thermal stresses exceed the strength of the lithosphere for ages between 0 and 30 Ma. The observed maximum ratio of transform spacing to spreading rate (W/ν = 10 m.y.) results in low thermal stresses that only exceed the strength of the lithosphere for ages less than 1 Ma. Thus transform faults relieve most of the thermal stress. Model predictions also agree with earthquake studies showing that normal faults in young lithosphere have tensional axes aligned with the ridge. Moreover, oceanic intraplate earthquakes rarely occur in lithosphere older than 30 Ma as predicted by the model. These and other geophysical observations confirm Turcotte's hypothesis that transform faults are thermal contraction cracks.