Fault Classifications

Active, Inactive, and Reactivated Faults

Active faults are structures along which one expects displacement to occur. By definition, since a shallow earthquake is a process that produces displacement across a fault, all shallow earthquakes occur on active faults.

Inactive faults are structures that one can identify, but which do not have earthquakes. Because of the complexity of earthquake activity, judging a fault to be inactive can be tricky, but often we can measure the last time substantial offset occurred across a fault. If a fault has been inactive for millions of years, it’s certainly safe to call it inactive. However, some faults only have large earthquakes once in thousands of years, and we need to evaluate carefully their hazard potential.

Reactivated faults form when movement along formerly inactive faults can help to alleviate strain within the crust or upper mantle. Deformation in the New Madrid seismic zone in the central United States is a good example of fault reactivation. Structure formed about 500 Ma ago are responding to a new forces and relieving strain in the mid-continent.