Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth

Mechanics of fold-and-thrust belts and accretionary wedges


  • Dan Davis,

  • John Suppe,

  • F. A. Dahlen


The overall mechanics of fold-and-thrust belts and accretionary wedges along compressive plate boundaries is considered to be analogous to that of a wedge of soil or snow in front of a moving bulldozer. The material within the wedge deforms until a critical taper is attained, after which it slides stably, continuing to grow at constant taper as additional material is encountered at the toe. The critical taper is the shape for which the wedge is on the verge of failure under horizontal compression everywhere, including the basal decollement. A wedge of less than critical taper will not slide when pushed but will deform internally, steepening its surface slope until the critical taper is attained. Common silicate sediments and rocks in the upper 10–15 km of the crust have pressure-dependent brittle compressive strengths which can be approximately represented by the empirical Coulomb failure criterion, modified to account for the weakening effects of pore fluid pressure. A simple analytical theory that predicts the critical tapers of subaerial and submarine Coulomb wedges is developed and tested quantitatively in three ways: First, laboratory model experiments with dry sand match the theory. Second, the known surface slope, basal dip, and pore fluid pressures in the active fold-and-thrust belt of western Taiwan are used to determine the effective coefficient of internal friction within the wedge, μ = 1.03, consistent with Byerlee's empirical law of sliding friction, μb = 0.85, on the base. This excess of internal strength over basal friction suggests that although the Taiwan wedge is highly deformed by imbricate thrusting, it is not so pervasively fractured that frictional sliding is always possible on surfaces of optimum orientation. Instead, the overall internal strength apparently is controlled by frictional sliding along suboptimally oriented planes and by the need to fracture some parts of the observed geometrically complex structure for continued deformation. Third, using the above values of μb and μ we predict Hubbert-Rubey fluid pressure ratios λ = λb for a number of other active subaerial and submarine accretionary wedges based on their observed tapers, finding values everywhere in excess of hydrostatic. These predicted overpressures are reasonable in light of petroleum drilling experience in general and agree with nearby fragmentary well data in specific wedges where they are available. The pressure-dependent Coulomb wedge theory developed here is expected to break down if the decollement exhibits pressure-independent plastic behavior because of either temperature or rock type. The effects of this breakdown are observed in the abrupt decrease in taper where wedge thicknesses exceed about 15 km, which is the predicted depth of the brittle-plastic transition in quartz-rich rocks for typical geothermal gradients. We conclude that fold-and-thrust belts and accretionary wedges have the mechanics of bulldozer wedges in compression and that normal laboratory fracture and frictional strengths are appropriate to mountain-building processes in the upper crust, above the brittle-plastic transition.