Structural Geology & Tectonics Group @ ETH Zürich (formerly UT Austin)

About the lab

Research in the Structural Geology & Tectonics group in the Geological Institute at ETH Zürich focuses on the rapidly deforming zones that define Earth’s tectonic plate boundaries and generate many of the planet’s geohazards. We are interested in the rates and directions in which faults and shear zones move; their geometries, widths and mechanical behaviors at depth; and the processes that shape them over geologic time.

Featured research (15)

Slow slip and tremor is observed along many subduction margins and is commonly linked to fluid pressure variations and migration. Accurate estimates of porosity and permeability around subduction megathrust shear zones are vital for understanding fluid-seismicity interactions. We use high-resolution digital outcrop data and (micro)structural analysis to assess transient permeability and porosity of a deep-seated subduction interface exposed on Syros Island, Greece. We document the orientations, relative timing, and opening aperture (based on crack-seal textures) of veins that were emplaced synkinematically with ductile deformation during early exhumation within the subduction channel. Our findings indicate high permeability through vein-filled fractures amidst a lower permeability matrix, with transient, fracture-controlled permeabilities ranging from 10 −14 to 10 −15 m 2 and fracture porosities of 1%–10%. These estimates align with low-end values from seismological/geodetic observations in active subduction zones, and are also consistent with fault-valve-like numerical models that suggest high background-to-transient permeability contrasts favor unstable slip.
The Klamath Mountains in northern California and southern Oregon are thought to record 200+ m.y. of subduction and terrane accretion, whereas the outboard Franciscan Complex records classic ocean-continent subduction along the North American margin. Unraveling the Klamaths’ late history could help constrain this transition in subduction style. Key is the Mesozoic Condrey Mountain Schist (CMS), comprising, in part, a subduction complex that occupies a structural window through older, overlying central Klamath thrust sheets but with otherwise uncertain relationships to other, more outboard Klamath or Franciscan terranes. The CMS consists of two units (upper and lower), which could be correlated with 1) other Klamath terranes, 2) the Franciscan, or 3) neither based on regional structures and limited extant age data. Upper CMS protolith and metamorphic dates overlap with other Klamath terranes, but the lower CMS remains enigmatic. We used multiple geochronometers to constrain the timing of lower CMS deposition and metamorphism. Maximum depositional ages (MDAs) derived from detrital zircon geochronology of metasedimentary rocks are 153-135 Ma. Metamorphic ages from white mica K-Ar and Rb-Sr multi-mineral isochrons from intercalated and coherently deformed metamafic lenses are 133-116 Ma. Lower CMS MDAs (<153 Ma) predominantly postdate the age of other Klamath terranes, but subduction metamorphism appears to predate the earliest coherent Franciscan underplating (ca. 123 Ma). The lower CMS thus occupies a spatial and temporal position between the Klamaths and Franciscan and preserves a non-retrogressed record of the Franciscan Complex’s early history (>123 Ma), otherwise only partially preserved in retrogressed Franciscan high grade blocks.
Exhumed high‐pressure/low‐temperature (HP/LT) metamorphic rocks provide insights into deep (∼20–70 km) subduction interface dynamics. On Syros Island (Cyclades, Greece), the Cycladic Blueschist Unit preserves blueschist‐to‐eclogite facies oceanic‐ and continental‐affinity rocks that record the structural and thermal evolution linked to Eocene subduction. Despite decades of research, the metamorphic and deformation history (P‐T‐D) and timing of subduction and exhumation are matters of ongoing discussion. We suggest that Syros comprises three coherent tectonic slices and that each slice underwent subduction, underplating, and syn‐subduction return flow along similar P‐T trajectories, but at progressively younger times. Subduction and exhumation are distinguished by lineations and ductile fold axis orientations, and are kinematically consistent with previous studies that document top‐to‐the‐S‐SW shear (prograde‐to‐peak subduction), top‐to‐the‐NE shear (blueschist facies exhumation), and then E‐W coaxial stretching (greenschist facies exhumation). Amphibole zonations record cooling during decompression, indicating return flow above a cold slab. Multi‐mineral Rb‐Sr isochrons and compiled metamorphic geochronology show that the three slices record distinct stages of peak subduction (53–52, ∼50, and 45 Ma) that young with structural depth. Retrograde blueschist and greenschist facies fabrics span ∼50–40 and ∼43–20 Ma, respectively, and also young with structural depth. Synthesized data sets support a revised tectonic framework for Syros, involving subduction of structurally distinct coherent slices and simultaneous return flow of previously accreted tectonic slices in the subduction channel shear zone. Distributed, ductile, dominantly coaxial return flow in an Eocene‐Oligocene subduction channel proceeded at rates of ∼1.5–5 mm/yr and accommodated ∼80% of the total exhumation of this HP/LT complex.
Tectonic plate motions predominantly result from a balance between the potential energy change of the subducting slab and viscous dissipation in the mantle, bending lithosphere and slab-upper plate interface. A wide range of observations from active subduction zones and exhumed rocks suggest that subduction interface shear zone rheology is sensitive to the composition of subducting crustal material-for example, sediments versus mafic igneous oceanic crust. Here we use 2-D numerical models of dynamically consistent subduction to systematically investigate how subduction interface viscosity influences large-scale subduction kinematics and dynamics. Our model consists of an oceanic slab subducting beneath an overriding continental plate. The slab includes an oceanic crustal/weak layer that controls the rheology of the interface. We implement a range of slab and interface strengths and explore how the kinematics respond for an initial upper mantle slab stage, and subsequent quasi-steady-state ponding near a viscosity jump at the 660-km-discontinuity. If material properties are suitably averaged, our results confirm the effect of interface strength on plate motions as based on simplified viscous dissipation analysis: a ∼2 order of magnitude increase in interface viscosity can decrease convergence speeds by ∼1 order of magnitude. However, the full dynamic solutions show a range of interesting behaviour including an interplay between interface strength and overriding plate topography and an end-member weak interface-weak slab case that results in slab break-of f/tearing. Additionall y, for models with a spatially limited, weak sediment strip embedded in regular interface material, as might be expected for the subduction of different types of oceanic materials through Earth's history, the transient response of enhanced rollback and subduction velocity is different for strong and weak slabs. Our work substantiates earlier suggestions as to the importance of the plate interface, and expands the range of quantifiable links between plate reorganizations, the nature of the incoming and overriding plate and the potential geological record.
Differential stress magnitude is a fundamental parameter in the study of geodynamic processes in the continental lithosphere, and is typically estimated in quartz- and olivine-dominated lithologies using recrystallized grain size piezometers. Here we evaluate the piezometric relationships in natural mylonites with mineral pairs of quartz–feldspar and olivine–orthopyroxene, which commonly coexist in deformed crustal and mantle rocks, respectively. To analyze mineral pairs, we measured dynamically recrystallized grain sizes in both phases that deformed under approximately isoviscous conditions. Using the experimentally calibrated piezometers for quartz and olivine, we develop piezometric relationships for feldspar and orthopyroxene. These new feldspar and orthopyroxene piezometers reasonably predict grain size relationships observed for mineral pairs from naturally deformed lithospheric shear zones. Combining our naturally constrained datasets with the existing experimental datasets for feldspar and orthopyroxene, we also derive piezometers that are consistent with the wattmeter model and with observations from other studies of mylonitic rocks. Our results provide an alternative for estimating stress in rocks such as granulites and pyroxenites, for which the quartz and olivine piezometers are unsuitable.

Lab head

Whitney Maria Behr
  • Department of Earth Sciences
About Whitney Maria Behr
  • My research focuses on the rapidly deforming zones that define Earth’s tectonic plate boundaries and generate many of the planet’s geohazards. I am interested in the rates and directions in which faults and shear zones move; their geometries, widths and mechanical behaviors at depth; and the processes that shape them over geologic time.

Members (5)

Alberto Ceccato
  • ETH Zurich
Leif Tokle
  • ETH Zurich
Ismay Vénice Akker
  • ETH Zürich Geological Institute

Alumni (11)

Nick Dygert
  • University of Tennessee
Kyle T. Ashley
  • Maryland State Department of Education
Jonas B Ruh
  • Spanish National Research Council
Carolyn Tewksbury-Christle
  • Fort Lewis College