Papers on Chemistry and Physics of Minerals and Rocks Volcanology
Strength of the lithosphere: Constraints imposed by laboratory experiments
Article first published online: 20 SEP 2012
Copyright 1995 by the American Geophysical Union.
Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (1978–2012)
Volume 100, Issue B9, pages 17587–17602, 10 September 1995
How to Cite
1995), Strength of the lithosphere: Constraints imposed by laboratory experiments, J. Geophys. Res., 100(B9), 17587–17602, doi:10.1029/95JB01460., , and (
- Issue published online: 20 SEP 2012
- Article first published online: 20 SEP 2012
- Manuscript Accepted: 8 MAY 1995
- Manuscript Received: 13 DEC 1994
The concept of strength envelopes, developed in the 1970s, allowed quantitative predictions of the strength of the lithosphere based on experimentally determined constitutive equations. Initial strength envelopes used an empirical relation for frictional sliding to describe deformation along brittle faults in the upper portion of the lithosphere and power law creep equations to estimate the plastic flow strength of rocks in the deeper part of the lithosphere. In the intervening decades, substantial progress has been made both in understanding the physical mechanisms involved in lithospheric deformation and in refining constitutive equations that describe these processes. The importance of a regime of semibrittle behavior is now recognized. Based on data from rocks without added pore fluids, the transition from brittle deformation to semibrittle flow can be estimated as the point at which the brittle fracture strength equals the peak stress to cause sliding. The transition from semibrittle deformation to plastic flow can be approximated as the stress at which the pressure exceeds the plastic flow strength. Current estimates of these stresses are on the order of a few hundred megapascals for relatively dry rocks. Knowledge of the stability of sliding along faults and of the onset of localization during brittle fracture has improved considerably. If the depth to the bottom of the seismogenic zone is determined by the transition to the stable frictional sliding regime, then that depth will be considerably more shallow than the depth of the transition to the plastic flow regime. Major questions concerning the strength of rocks remain. In particular, the effect of water on strength is critical to accurate predictions. Constitutive equations which include the effects of water fugacity and pore fluid pressure as well as temperature and strain rate are needed for both the brittle sliding and semibrittle flow regimes. Although the constitutive equations for dislocation creep and diffusional creep in single-phase aggregates are more robust, few data exist for plastic deformation in two-phase aggregates. Despite the fact that localization is ubiquitous in rocks deforming both in brittle and plastic regimes, only a limited amount of accurate experimental data are available to constrain predictions of this behavior. Accordingly, flow strengths now predicted from laboratory data probably overestimate the actual rock strength, perhaps by a significant amount. Still, the predictions are robust enough that uncertainties in geometry, mineralogy, loading conditions and thermodynamic state are probably the limiting factors in our understanding. Thus, experimentally determined rheologies can be applied to understand a broad range of topical problems in regional and global tectonics both on the Earth and on other planetary bodies.