US Geological Survey


Document Type


Date of this Version



Published in JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 97, NO. B8, PAGES 11,703-11,728, JULY 30, 1992


To date, more than 7300 in situ stress orientations have been compiled as part of the World Stress Map project. Of these, over 4400 are considered reliable tectonic stress indicators, recording horizontal stress orientations to within < ±25 °. Remarkably good correlation is observed between stress orientations deduced from in situ stress measurements and geologic observations made in the upper 1-2 km, well bore breakouts extending to 4-5 km depth and earthquake focal mechanisms to depths of-20 km. Regionally uniform stress orientations and relative magnitudes permit definition of broad-scale regional stress patterns often extending 20-200 times the approximately 20-25 km thickness of the upper brittle lithosphere. The "first-order" midplate stress fields are believed to be largely the result of compressional forces applied at plate boundaries, primarily ridge push and continental collision. The orientation of the intraplate stress field is thus largely controlled by the geometry of the plate boundaries. There is no evidence of large lateral stress gradients (as evidenced by lateral variations in stress regime) which would be expected across large plates if simple resistive or driving basal drag tractions (parallel or antiparallel to absolute motion) controlled the intraplate stress field. Intraplate areas of active extension are generally associated with regions of high topography: western U.S. Cordillera, high Andes, Tibetan plateau, western Indian Ocean plateau. Buoyancy stresses related to crustal thickening and/or lithospheric thinning in these regions dominate the intraplate compressional stress field due to plate-driving forces. These buoyancy forces are just one of several categories of "second-order" stresses, or local perturbations, that can be identified once the first-order stress patterns are recognized. These second-order stress fields can often be associated with specific geologic or tectonic features, for example, lithospheric flexure, lateral strength contrasts, as well as the lateral density contrasts which give rise to buoyancy forces. These second-order stress patterns typically have wavelengths ranging from 5 to 10+ times the thickness of the brittle upper lithosphere. A two-dimensional analysis of the amount of rotation of regional horizontal stress orientations due to a superimposed local stress constrains the ratio of the magnitude of the horizontal regional stress differences to the local uniaxial stress. For a detectable rotation of 15 °, the local horizontal uniaxial stress must be at least twice the magnitude of the regional horizontal stress differences. Examples of local rotations of SHmax orientations include a 750-85 ° rotation on the
northeastern Canadian continental shelf possibly related to margin-normal extension derived from sediment-loading flexural stresses, a 50 °-60 ° rotation within the East African rift relative to western Africa due to extensional buoyancy forces caused by lithospheric thinning, and an approximately 90 ° rotation along the northern margin of the Paleozoic Amazonas rift in central Brazil. In this final example, this rotation is hypothesized as being due to deviatoric compression oriented normal to the rift axis resulting from local lithospheric support of a dense mass in the lower crust beneath the rift ("rift pillow"). Estimates of the magnitudes of first-order (plate boundary force derived) regional stress differences computed from modeling the source of observed local stress rotations magnitudes can be compared with regional stress differences based on the frictional strength of the crust (i.e., "Byedee' s law") assuming hydrostatic pore pressure. The examples given here are too few to provide a definitive evaluation of the direct applicability of Byerlee's law to the upper brittle part of the lithosphere, particularly in view of uncertainties such as pore pressure and relative magnitude of the intermediate principal stresses. Nonetheless, the observed rotations all indicate that the magnitude of the local horizontal uniaxial stresses must be 1-2.5+ times the magnitude of the regional first-order horizontal stress differences and suggest that careful evaluation of such local rotations may be a powerful technique for constraining the in situ magnitude stress differences in the upper, brittle part
of the lithosphere.