Articles | Volume 8, issue 1
Research article
10 Jan 2017
Research article |  | 10 Jan 2017

Microstructures and deformation mechanisms in Opalinus Clay: insights from scaly clay from the Main Fault in the Mont Terri Rock Laboratory (CH)

Ben Laurich, Janos L. Urai, and Christophe Nussbaum

Abstract. The Main Fault in the shaly facies of Opalinus Clay is a small reverse fault formed in slightly overconsolidated claystone at around 1 km depth. The fault zone is up to 6 m wide, with micron-thick shear zones, calcite and celestite veins, scaly clay and clay gouge. Scaly clay occurs in up to 1.5 m wide lenses, providing hand specimens for this study. We mapped the scaly clay fabric at 1 m–10 nm scale, examining scaly clay for the first time using broad-ion beam polishing combined with scanning electron microscopy (BIB-SEM). Results show a network of thin shear zones and microveins, separating angular to lensoid microlithons between 10 cm and 10 µm in diameter, with slickensided surfaces. Our results show that microlithons are only weakly deformed and that strain is accumulated by fragmentation of microlithons by newly formed shear zones, by shearing in the micron-thick zones and by rearrangement of the microlithons.

The scaly clay aggregates can be easily disintegrated into individual microlithons because of the very low tensile strength of the thin shear zones. Analyses of the microlithon size by sieving indicate a power-law distribution model with exponents just above 2. From this, we estimate that only 1 vol % of the scaly clay aggregate is in the shear zones.

After a literature review of the hypotheses for scaly clay generation, we present a new model to explain the progressive formation of a self-similar network of anastomosing thin shear zones in a fault relay. The relay provides the necessary boundary conditions for macroscopically continuous deformation. Localization of strain in thin shear zones which are locally dilatant, and precipitation of calcite veins in dilatant shear fractures, evolve into complex microscale re-partitioning of shear, forming new shear zones while the microlithons remain much less deformed internally and the volume proportion of the µm-thick shear zones slowly increases. Grain-scale deformation mechanisms are microfracturing, boudinage and rotation of mica grains, pressure solution of carbonate fossils and pore collapse during ductile flow of the clay matrix. This study provides a microphysical basis to relate microstructures to macroscopic observations of strength and permeability of the Main Fault, and extrapolating fault properties in long-term deformation.

Short summary
Scaly clay is a well-known rock fabric that can develop in tectonic systems and that can alter the physical rock properties of a formation. However, the internal microstructure and evolution of this fabric remain poorly understood. We examined the scaly microstructure of progressively faulted Opalinus Clay using optical as well as scanning electron microscopy. We show that as little as 1 vol.% in scaly clay aggregates is strained and present an evolutionary model for this.