• granular media;
  • rock physics;
  • fault gouge

[1] Two-dimensional numerical simulations of shear in a gravity-free layer of circular grains were conducted to illuminate the basic mechanics of shear of granular layers (such as layers of fault gouge). Our simulated granular layers exhibit either stable (steady state) or unstable (stick slip) motion. The transition from steady to stick-slip sliding depends on loading velocity and applied confining stress in a way similar to a simple model of a block on a frictional surface. We investigate the conditions which lead to naturally occurring stick-slip behavior and study in detail the systems behavior prior to and during slip events. Matching our numerical results to a spring block model, the system of grains was found to have bulk static and dynamic coefficients of friction that differ by about 0.1. This differing static and dynamic friction emerged spontaneously, from the collective behavior of grains, and was not prescribed a priori via a frictional rule between grain contacts. Results show that the micromechanics of contact forces is responsible for stick-slip behavior: During the “stuck” phase, and in preparation for slip, more and more grain contacts which carry low forces slide, resulting in accelerating internal stress release. When enough of the low-force contacts frictionally slide, the granular layer weakens and losses rigidity, leading to motion of contacts that carry larger forces and large-scale slip. Our results may have implications to the understanding of the stability of gouge layers and are thus related to the underlying physics of earthquakes.