fault, in geology, fracture in the earth's crust in which the rock on one side of the fracture has measurable movement in relation to the rock on the other side. Faults on other planets and satellites of the solar system also have been recognized. Evidence of faults are found either at the surface (fault surface) or underground (fault plane). Faults are most evident in outcrops of sedimentary formations where they conspicuously offset previously continuous strata. Movement along a fault plane may be vertical, horizontal, or oblique in direction, or it may consist in the rotation of one or both of the fault blocks, with most movements associated with mountain building and plate tectonics. The two classes of faults include the dip-slip (up and down movement), which is further divided into normal and thrust (reverse) faults; and strike-slip (movement parallel to the fault plane). The San Andreas fault of California is of this type. In dip-slip faults the term "hanging wall" is used for the side that lies vertically above the other, called the "footwall." A fault in which the hanging wall moves down and the footwall is stationary is called a normal fault. Normal faults are formed by tensional, or pull-apart, forces. A fault in which the hanging wall is the upthrown side is called a thrust fault because the hanging wall appears to have been pushed up over the footwall. Such faults are formed by compressional forces that push rock together and are by far the most common of the dip-slip faults. All types of faults have been recognized on the ocean floor: normal faults occur in the rift valleys associated with mid ocean ridges spreading at slow rates; strike-slip faults appear between the offset portions of mid-ocean ridges; and thrust faults occur at subducting plate boundaries. Active faults, though they may not move for decades, can move many feet in a matter of seconds, producing an earthquake. The largest earthquakes occur along thrust faults. Some faults creep from a half inch to as much as 4 in. (1 to 10 cm) per year. Fault movements are measured using laser and other devices. Faults create interpretation problems for geologists by altering the relations of strata (see stratification), such as making the same rock layer offset in two vertical cross sections of a formation or making layers disappear altogether. Faults are often seen on the surface as topographical features, including offset streams, linear lakes, and fault scarps.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.