Faults and Forces

The style of faulting is an indicator of rock deformation and reflects the type of forces pushing or pulling on the region.

Near Earth’s surface, the orientation of these forces are usually oriented such that one is vertical and the other two are horizontal. The precise direction of the horizontal forces varies from place to place as does the size of each force.

The style of faulting that is a reflection of the relative size of the different forces – in particular is the relative size of the vertical to the horizontal forces.

There are three cases to consider, the vertical force can be the smallest, the largest, or the intermediate (neither smallest or largest). If the vertical force is the largest, we get normal faulting, if it is the smallest, we get reverse faulting. When the vertical force is the intermediate force, we get strike-slip faulting.

Normal faulting is indicative of a region that is stretching, and on the continents, normal faulting usually occurs in regions with relatively high elevation such as plateaus.

Reverse faulting reflects compressive forces squeezing a region and they are common in uplifting mountain ranges and along the coast of many regions bordering the Pacific Ocean. The largest earthquakes are generally low-angle (shallow dipping) reverse faults associated with “subduction” plate boundaries.

Strike-slip faulting indicates neither extension nor compression, but identifies regions where rocks are sliding past each other. The San Andreas fault system is a famous example of strike-slip deformation – part of coastal California is sliding to the northwest relative to the rest of North America – Los Angeles is slowly moving towards San Francisco.

As one might expect, the distribution of faulting styles is not random, but varies systematically across Earth and was one of the most important observations in constructing the plate tectonic model which explains so much of what we observe happening in the shallow part of Earth.


Fault Type: Normal Faulting Reverse Faulting Transform Faulting
Deformation Style: Extension Compression Translation
Force Orientation: Vertical Force Is Largest Vertical Force Is Smallest Vertical Force Is Intermediate