Skip to main content
The Role of Fracture Branching in the Evolution of Fracture Networks: An Outcrop Study of the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, Southern Utah
Journal of Structural Geology
  • Benjamin E Surpless, Trinity University
  • Caroline McKeighan
Document Type
Publication Date

Fractures strongly influence the permeability of geologic formations, and because most fractures in the subsurface are below the resolution of geophysical methods, predicting the spatial evolution of fracture networks is important for groundwater resources, oil and gas production, and geothermal energy. Previous researchers have established that variations in lithologic mechanical properties influence the propagation of joints and fractures in layered rocks under stable stress conditions, but few studies have addressed how instabilities in local stress fields, in conjunction with variations in rock mechanical properties, lead to fracture branching.

We investigate NE-striking fractures in the footwall of the west-dipping Sevier fault in Utah, USA, where canyons expose the sub-horizontal Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. We analyzed field data, petrographic data, and unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) imagery to document the fracture network. We also used structure-from-motion (SfM) software to build a 3D virtual outcrop model, measuring 100 m high and 260 m wide, to aid our analysis of fracture network geometry, intensity, and spacing variations.

Data reveal an up-section increase in fracture intensity and decrease in spacing regularity partly accommodated by upward fracture branching. We suggest that branching was initiated by a combination of changes in mechanical behavior within cross-bed sets and twist hackle propagation associated with mixed mode fracture systems. These tree-like fracture geometries may be associated with high-velocity, earthquake-related fracture propagation events. Fracture branching strongly influences permeability and should be considered by researchers investigating fracture development in subsurface systems.

Citation Information
Surpless, B., & McKeighan, C. (2022). The role of fracture branching in the evolution of fracture networks: An outcrop study of the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, southern Utah. Journal of Structural Geology, 161, Article 104664.