A fault is a fracture or zone of fractures between two blocks of rock. Faults allow the blocks to move relative to each other. This movement may occur rapidly, in the form of an earthquake - or may occur slowly, in the form of creep. Faults may range in length from a few millimeters to thousands of kilometers. Most faults produce repeated displacements over geologic time. During an earthquake, the rock on one side of the fault suddenly slips with respect to the other. The fault surface can be horizontal or vertical or some arbitrary angle in between.
Earth scientists use the angle of the fault with respect to the surface (known as the dip) and the direction of slip along the fault to classify faults. Faults which move along the direction of the dip plane are dip-slip faults and described as either normal or reverse (thrust), depending on their motion. Faults which move horizontally are known as strike-slip faults and are classified as either right-lateral or left-lateral. Faults which show both dip-slip and strike-slip motion are known as oblique-slip faults.
The following definitions are adapted from The Earth by Press and Siever.
normal fault - a dip-slip fault in which the block above the fault has moved downward relative to the block below. This type of faulting occurs in response to extension and is often observed in the Western United States Basin and Range Province and along oceanic ridge systems.
reverse (thrust) fault - a dip-slip fault in which the upper block, above the fault plane, moves up and over the lower block. This type of faulting is common in areas of compression, such as regions where one plate is being subducted under another as in Japan. When the dip angle is shallow, a reverse fault is often described as a thrust fault.
strike-slip fault - a fault on which the two blocks slide past one another. The San Andreas Fault is an example of a right lateral fault.
A left-lateral strike-slip fault is one on which the displacement of the far block is to the left when viewed from either side.
A right-lateral strike-slip fault is one on which the displacement of the far block is to the right when viewed from either side.
Learn More: Glossary of earthquake terms