The Dynamics of Unlikely Slip: 3D Modeling of Low-Angle Normal Fault Rupture at the Mai'iu Fault, Papua New Guinea

J. Biemiller, Alice-Agnes Gabriel, Thomas Ulrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Despite decades-long debate over the mechanics of low-angle normal faults (LANFs) dipping less than 30°, many questions about their strength, stress, and slip remain unresolved. Recent geologic and geophysical observations have confirmed that gently dipping detachment faults can slip at such shallow dips and host moderate-to-large earthquakes. Here, we analyze the first 3D dynamic rupture models to assess how different stress and strength conditions affect rupture characteristics of LANF earthquakes. We model observationally constrained spontaneous rupture under different loading conditions on the active Mai'iu fault in Papua New Guinea, which dips 16°–24° at the surface and accommodates ∼8 mm/yr of horizontal extension. We analyze four distinct fault-local stress scenarios: (1) Andersonian extension, as inferred in the hanging wall; (2) back-rotated principal stresses inferred paleopiezometrically from the exhumed footwall; (3) favorably rotated principal stresses well-aligned for low-angle normal-sense slip; and (4) Andersonian extension derived from depth-variable static fault friction decreasing toward the surface. Our modeling suggests that subcritically stressed detachment faults can host moderate earthquakes within purely Andersonian stress fields. Near-surface rupture is impeded by free-surface stress interactions and dynamic effects of the gently dipping geometry and frictionally stable gouges of the shallowest portion of the fault. Although favorably inclined principal stresses have been proposed for some detachments, these conditions are not necessary for seismic slip on these faults. Our results demonstrate how integrated geophysical and geologic observations can constrain dynamic rupture model parameters to develop realistic rupture scenarios of active faults that may pose significant seismic and tsunami hazards to nearby communities.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalGeochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 16 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2022-06-06
Acknowledged KAUST grant number(s): ORS-2017-CRG6 3389.02
Acknowledgements: Funding for this work was provided by a Green Postdoctoral Scholarship at the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (TEAR ERC Starting grant no. 852992; ChEESE project, grant agreement No. 823844). The authors acknowledge additional funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) (projects GA 2465/2-1, GA 2465/3-1), by KAUST-CRG (FRAGEN, grant no. ORS-2017-CRG6 3389.02) and by KONWIHR—the Bavarian Competence Network for Technical and Scientific High Performance Computing (project NewWave). Computing resources were provided by the Institute of Geophysics of LMU Munich (Oeser et al., 2006) and the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ, project no. pr63qo). SeisSol simulations were performed on SuperMUC-NG at Leibniz-Rechenzentrum (LRZ) in Munich. The authors thank Carsten Uphoff and Amrit Bal for their help with SeisSol implementation and Samuel Webber for sharing the Mai'iu fault geometry model. The authors acknowledge helpful discussions with Samuel Webber, Marcel Mizera, Timothy Little, Carolyn Boulton, Laura Wallace, Susan Ellis, and Luc Lavier.
This publication acknowledges KAUST support, but has no KAUST affiliated authors.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics


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