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Rapid strain release on the Bear River fault zone, Utah–Wyoming—The impact of preexisting structure on the rupture behavior of a new normal fault

March 15, 2021

Earthquake clustering (grouping in space and time) is a widely observed mode of strain release in the upper crust, although this behavior on individual faults is a departure from classic elastic rebound theory. In this study, we consider factors responsible for a cluster of earthquakes on the Bear River fault zone (BRF), a recently activated, 44-km-long normal fault on the eastern margin of Basin and Range extension in the Rocky Mountains. The entire surface-rupturing history of the BRF, as gleaned from paleoseismic and geomorphic observations, began only 4500 years ago and consists of at least three large events. Rupture of the BRF is spatially complex and is clearly conditioned by preexisting structure. In particular, where the south end of the fault intersects older thrust faults and upturned strata along the south-dipping flank of the Precambrian basement-cored Uinta arch, the main trace ends abruptly in a set of orthogonal splays that accommodate down-dropping of a large hanging-wall graben against the arch. We hypothesize that the geomechanically strong Uinta arch crustal block impeded the development of the BRF and, over time, enabled a significant accumulation of elastic strain energy, eventually giving rise to a pulse of strain release in the mid- to late Holocene. We surmise that variations in fault strength, both in space and time, is a cause of earthquake clustering on the BRF and on other faults that are structurally and tectonically immature. The first two earthquakes on the BRF occurred during the same period of time as a regional cluster of earthquakes in the Middle Rocky Mountains, suggesting that isolated faults in this slowly extending region interact through widespread changes in stress conditions.