Transform fault

A transform fault or transform boundary is a plate boundary where the motion is predominantly horizontal.[1] It ends abruptly and is connected to another transform, a spreading ridge, or a subduction zone.[2]

Most of these faults are hidden in the deep ocean, where they offset divergent boundaries in short zigzags resulting from seafloor spreading, the best-known (and most destructive) being those on land at the margins of continental tectonic plates. A transform fault is the only type of strike-slip fault that is classified as a plate boundary.

Continental-continental conservative plate boundary opposite directions
Diagram showing a transform fault with two plates moving in opposite directions
Transform fault-1
Transform fault (the red lines)


These faults are also known as conservative plate boundaries, since they neither create nor destroy lithosphere.


Geophysicist and geologist John Tuzo Wilson recognized that the offsets of oceanic ridges by faults do not follow the classical pattern of an offset fence or geological marker in Reid's rebound theory of faulting,[3] from which the sense of slip is derived. The new class of faults,[4] called transform faults, produce slip in the opposite direction from what one would surmise from the standard interpretation of an offset geological feature. Slip along transform faults does not increase the distance between the ridges it separates; the distance remains constant in earthquakes because the ridges are spreading centers. This hypothesis was confirmed in a study of the fault plane solutions that showed the slip on transform faults points in the opposite direction than classical interpretation would suggest.[5]

Difference between transform and transcurrent faults

Transform fault
Transform fault
Transcurrent NEW
Transcurrent fault

Transform faults are closely related to transcurrent faults and are commonly confused. Both types of fault are strike-slip or side-to-side in movement; nevertheless, transform faults always end at a junction with another plate boundary, while transcurrent faults may die out without a junction with another fault. Finally, transform faults form a tectonic plate boundary, while transcurrent faults do not.


The effect of a fault is to relieve strain, which can be caused by compression, extension, or lateral stress in the rock layers at the surface or deep in the Earth's subsurface. Transform faults specifically relieve strain by transporting the strain between ridges or subduction zones. They also act as the plane of weakness, which may result in splitting in rift zones.


Transform faults are commonly found linking segments of mid-oceanic ridges or spreading centres. These mid-oceanic ridges are where new seafloor is constantly created through the upwelling of new basaltic magma. With new seafloor being pushed and pulled out, the older seafloor slowly slides away from the mid-oceanic ridges toward the continents. Although separated only by tens of kilometers, this separation between segments of the ridges causes portions of the seafloor to push past each other in opposing directions. This lateral movement of seafloors past each other is where transform faults are currently active.

Spreading center and strips
Spreading center and strips

Transform faults move differently from a strike-slip fault at the mid-oceanic ridge. Instead of the ridges moving away from each other, as they do in other strike-slip faults, transform-fault ridges remain in the same, fixed locations, and the new ocean seafloor created at the ridges is pushed away from the ridge. Evidence of this motion can be found in paleomagnetic striping on the seafloor.

A paper written by geophysicist Taras Gerya theorizes that the creation of the transform faults between the ridges of the mid-oceanic ridge is attributed to rotated and stretched sections of the mid-oceanic ridge.[6] This occurs over a long period of time with the spreading center or ridge slowly deforming from a straight line to a curved line. Finally, fracturing along these planes forms transform faults. As this takes place, the fault changes from a normal fault with extensional stress to a strike-slip fault with lateral stress.[7] In the study done by Bonatti and Crane, peridotite and gabbro rocks were discovered in the edges of the transform ridges. These rocks are created deep inside the Earth's mantle and then rapidly exhumed to the surface.[7] This evidence helps to prove that new seafloor is being created at the mid-oceanic ridges and further supports the theory of plate tectonics.

Active transform faults are between two tectonic structures or faults. Fracture zones represent the previously active transform-fault lines, which have since passed the active transform zone and are being pushed toward the continents. These elevated ridges on the ocean floor can be traced for hundreds of miles and in some cases even from one continent across an ocean to the other continent.

The most prominent examples of the mid-oceanic ridge transform zones are in the Atlantic Ocean between South America and Africa. Known as the St. Paul, Romanche, Chain, and Ascension fracture zones, these areas have deep, easily identifiable transform faults and ridges. Other locations include: the East Pacific Ridge located in the South Eastern Pacific Ocean, which meets up with San Andreas Fault to the North.

Transform faults are not limited to oceanic crust and spreading centers; many of them are on continental margins. The best example is the San Andreas Fault on the Pacific coast of the United States. The San Andreas Fault links the East Pacific Rise off the West coast of Mexico (Gulf of California) to the Mendocino Triple Junction (Part of the Juan de Fuca plate) off the coast of the Northwestern United States, making it a ridge-to-transform-style fault.[4] The formation of the San Andreas Fault system occurred fairly recently during the Oligocene Period between 34 million and 24 million years ago.[8] During this period, the Farallon plate, followed by the Pacific plate, collided into the North American plate.[8] The collision led to the subduction of the Farallon plate underneath the North American plate. Once the spreading center separating the Pacific and the Farallon plates was subducted beneath the North American plate, the San Andreas Continental Transform-Fault system was created.[8]

Alpine Fault SRTM
The Southern Alps rise dramatically beside the Alpine Fault on New Zealand's West Coast. About 500 kilometres (300 mi) long; northwest at top.

In New Zealand, the South Island's alpine fault is a transform fault for much of its length. This has resulted in the folded land of the Southland Syncline being split into an eastern and western section several hundred kilometres apart. The majority of the syncline is found in Southland and The Catlins in the island's southeast, but a smaller section is also present in the Tasman District in the island's northwest.

Other examples include:


In his work on transform-fault systems, geologist Tuzo Wilson said that transform faults must be connected to other faults or tectonic-plate boundaries on both ends; because of that requirement, transform faults can grow in length, keep a constant length, or decrease in length.[4] These length changes are dependent on which type of fault or tectonic structure connect with the transform fault. Wilson described six types of transform faults:

Growing length: In situations where a transform fault links a spreading center and the upper block of a subduction zone or where two upper blocks of subduction zones are linked, the transform fault itself will grow in length.[4]

Spreading to upper NEW
Upper to upper

Spreading to upper NEW
Upper to upper

Constant length: In other cases, transform faults will remain at a constant length. This steadiness can be attributed to many different causes. In the case of ridge-to-ridge transforms, the constancy is caused by the continuous growth by both ridges outward, canceling any change in length. The opposite occurs when a ridge linked to a subducting plate, where all the lithosphere (new sea floor) being created by the ridge is subducted, or swallowed up, by the subduction zone.[4] Finally, when two upper subduction plates are linked there is no change in length. This is due to the plates moving parallel with each other and no new lithosphere is being created to change that length.

Spreading centers constant
Upper to down NEW

Spreading centers constant
Upper to down NEW

Decreasing length faults: In rare cases, transform faults can shrink in length. These occur when two descending subduction plates are linked by a transform fault. In time as the plates are subducted, the transform fault will decrease in length until the transform fault disappears completely, leaving only two subduction zones facing in opposite directions.[4]

Down to down NEW
Spreading to Down NEW

Down to down NEW
Spreading to Down NEW

See also

  • Fracture zone – A junction between oceanic crustal regions of different ages on the same plate left by a transform fault
  • Leaky transform fault – A transform fault with volcanic activity along a significant portion of its length producing new crust.
  • List of tectonic plate interactions – Definitions and examples of the interactions between the relatively mobile sections of the lithosphere
  • Plate tectonics – The scientific theory that describes the large-scale motions of Earth's lithosphere
  • Strike-slip tectonics – Structure and processes associated with zones of lateral displacement in the Earth's crust
  • Structural geology – The science of the description and interpretation of deformation in the Earth's crust


  1. ^ Moores E.M.; Twiss R.J. (2014). Tectonics. Waveland Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-1-4786-2660-2.
  2. ^ Kearey, K. A. (2007). Global Tectonics. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 84–90.
  3. ^ Reid, H.F., (1910). The Mechanics of the Earthquake. in The California Earthquake of April 18, 1906, Report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington D.C.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Wilson, J.T. (24 July 1965). "A new class of faults and their bearing on continental drift". Nature. 207 (4995): 343–347. Bibcode:1965Natur.207..343W. doi:10.1038/207343a0.
  5. ^ Sykes, L.R. (1967). Mechanism of earthquakes and nature of faulting on the mid-oceanic ridges, Journal of Geophysical Research, 72, 5–27.
  6. ^ Gerya, T. (2010). "Dynamical Instability Produces Transform Faults at Mid-Ocean Ridges". Science. 329 (5995): 1047–1050. Bibcode:2010Sci...329.1047G. doi:10.1126/science.1191349. PMID 20798313.
  7. ^ a b Bonatti, Enrico; Crane, Kathleen (1984). "Oceanic Fracture Zones". Scientific American. 5 (5): 40–52. Bibcode:1984SciAm.250e..40B. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0584-40.
  8. ^ a b c Atwater, Tanya (1970). "Implications of Plate Tectonics for the Cenozoic Tectonic Evolution of Western North America". Bulletin of the Geological Society of America. 81 (12): 3513–3536. doi:10.1130/0016-7606(1970)81[3513:ioptft];2.
  • International Tectonic Dictionary – AAPG Memoir 7, 1967
  • The Encyclopedia of Structural Geology and Plate Tectonics – Ed. by Carl K. Seyfert, 1987
Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault

The Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault (AGFZ), also called a fault zone and a fracture zone, is a major seismic fault in the Central Atlantic Ocean west of the Strait of Gibraltar. It is the product of the complex interaction between the African, Eurasian, and Iberian plates.

The AGFZ produced the large-magnitude 1755 Lisbon and 1969 Horseshoe earthquakes and, consequently, a number of large tsunamis.

Ballenas Fault

The Ballenas Fault is a transform fault located on the seabed of the Gulf of California, extending through the Canal de Ballenas which separates the Isla Ángel de la Guarda from the Baja California Peninsula. The fault is an integral part of the East Pacific Rise, linking the Delfin Basin in the north with a smaller spreading center to the south. The fault is considered the northernmost member of a grouping of four transform faults called the Guaymas Transform Fault System.

The Ballenas Fault produced a magnitude 6.9 earthquake on August 3, 2009.

Blanco Fracture Zone

The Blanco Fracture Zone or Blanco Transform Fault Zone (BTFZ) is a right lateral transform fault zone, which runs northeast off the coast of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, extending from the Gorda Ridge in the south to the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the north.

Cayman Trough

The Cayman Trough (also known as the Cayman Trench, Bartlett Deep and Bartlett Trough) is a complex transform fault zone pull-apart basin which contains a small spreading ridge, the Mid-Cayman Rise, on the floor of the western Caribbean Sea between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. It is the deepest point in the Caribbean Sea and forms part of the tectonic boundary between the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. It extends from the Windward Passage, going south of the Sierra Maestra of Cuba toward Guatemala. The transform continues onshore as the Motagua Fault, which cuts across Guatemala and extends offshore under the Pacific Ocean, where it intersects the Middle America Trench subduction zone.

The relatively narrow trough trends east-northeast to west-southwest and has a maximum depth of 7,686 metres (25,217 ft). Within the trough is a slowly spreading north-south ridge which may be the result of an offset or gap of approximately 420 kilometres (260 mi) along the main fault trace. The Cayman spreading ridge shows a long-term opening rate of 11–12 mm/yr. The eastern section of the trough has been named the Gonâve Microplate. The Gonâve plate extends from the spreading ridge east to the island of Hispaniola. It is bounded on the north by the Oriente and Septentrional fault zones. On the south the Gonâve is bounded by the Walton fault zone, the Jamaica restraining bend and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. The two bounding strike slip fault zones are left lateral. The motion relative to the North American Plate is 11 mm/yr to the east and the motion relative to the Caribbean Plate is 8 mm/yr. The western section of the trough is bounded to its south by the Swan Islands Transform Fault.During the Eocene the trough was the site of a subduction zone which formed the volcanic arc of the Cayman Ridge and the Sierra Maestra volcanic terrain of Cuba to the north, as the northeastward-moving Caribbean Plate was subducted beneath the southwest-moving North American Plate, or as some researchers contend, beneath a plate fragment dubbed the East Cuban Microplate.In 2010 a UK team from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton (NOCS), equipped with an autonomously controlled robot submarine, began mapping the full extent of the trench and discovered black smokers on the ocean floor at a depth of 5 km (3.1 mi), the deepest yet found. In January 2012, the researchers announced that water exits the vents at a temperature possibly exceeding 450 °C (842 °F), making them among the hottest known undersea vents. They also announced the discovery of new species, including an eyeless shrimp with a light-sensing organ on its back.

Delfin Basin

The Delfin Basin (delfín is Spanish for "dolphin") is a pair of interconnected submarine depressions located on the seabed of the northern Gulf of California. The northernmost of these is called the Upper Delfin Basin while the southernmost is called the Lower Delfin Basin. Both of these features are areas of subsidence caused by extensional forces imparted by a spreading center associated with the East Pacific Rise. The two basins are linked by a short transform fault which was the apparent source of an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 on November 26, 1997.

The Delfin Basin is linked to the Guaymas Basin located about 325 km to the south by a series of four transform faults called the Guaymas Transform Fault System. It is also linked to the north with the Consag Basin by way of a poorly defined deformation zone.

Eltanin Fault System

The Eltanin Fault System (Eltanin Fracture Zone) is a series of six or seven dextral transform faults that offset the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge, a spreading zone between the Pacific Plate and the Antarctic Plate. The affected zone of the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge is about 800 km long, between 56° S, 145° W and 54.5° S, 118.5° W, southwest of Easter Island, and about as far as one can get from land on planet Earth (48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W). However, the total offset is about 1600 km. The two major faults in the Eltanin Fracture Zone are the Heezen Fault and the Tharp Fault. Others related faults include the Vacquier Transform Fault, the Menard Transform Fault, and the Udintsev Fault.

Fracture zone

A fracture zone is a linear oceanic feature—often hundreds, even thousands of kilometers long—resulting from the action of offset mid-ocean ridge axis segments. They are a consequence of plate tectonics. Lithospheric plates on either side of an active transform fault move in opposite directions; here, strike-slip activity occurs. Fracture zones extend past the transform faults, away from the ridge axis; seismically inactive (because both plate segments are moving in the same direction), they display evidence of past transform fault activity, primarily in the different ages of the crust on opposite sides of the zone.

In actual usage, many transform faults aligned with fracture zones are often loosely referred to as "fracture zones" although technically, they are not.

Gonâve Microplate

The Gonâve Microplate forms part of the boundary between the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. It is bounded to the west by the Cayman spreading center, to the north by the Septentrional-Oriente fault zone and to the south by the Walton fault zone and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. The existence of this microplate was first proposed in 1991. This has been confirmed by GPS measurements, which show that the overall displacement between the two main plates is split almost equally between the transform fault zones that bound the Gonâve microplate. The microplate is expected to eventually become accreted to the North American Plate.

Guaymas Fault

The Guaymas Fault, named for the city of Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico, is a major right lateral-moving transform fault which runs along the seabed of the Gulf of California. It is an integral part of the Gulf of California Rift Zone, the northern extremity of the East Pacific Rise. The Guaymas Fault runs from the San Pedro Martir Basin located at the southern end of the San Lorenzo Fault (the next transform to the north), and extends southward to the Guaymas Basin, a heavily sedimented rift which includes both continental and oceanic crust and contains numerous hydrothermal vents.

The Guaymas Fault is often grouped together with the three transform faults to its north as the Guaymas Transform Fault System. These faults are, from north to south, the Ballenas, Partida, San Lorenzo, and Guaymas. This system of fault extends some 325 km, linking the Delfin Basin in the north with the Guaymas Basin in the south.

Leaky transform fault

A leaky transform fault is a transform fault with volcanic activity along a significant portion of its length producing new crust. In addition to the regular strike-slip motion observed at transform boundaries, an oblique extensional component is present, resulting in motion of the plates that is not parallel to the plate boundary. This opens the fault, allowing melt to break through and cool on the ocean floor, producing new crust. This extensional component can come from a slight shift in the position of a plate's Euler Pole. In order to accommodate oblique motion along the plate boundary, these leaky transform faults can break up into a series of small transforms linked by short segments of spreading ridges. These new transforms will follow small circles centred on the new Euler Pole.

Magallanes-Fagnano Fault

The Magallanes–Fagnano Fault (Spanish: Falla Fagnano–Magallanes) is a continental transform fault. The fault marks a transform boundary between the Scotia Plate and the South American Plate, cutting across continental crust. It runs under the Strait of Magellan's western arm, Almirantazgo Sound and Fagnano Lake.

It has been suggested that the Magallanes-Fagnano Fault is a reactivated suture of pre-Jurassic age separating the basement of two terranes.

Malpelo Plate

The Malpelo Plate is a small tectonic plate (a microplate) located off the coasts west of Ecuador and Colombia. It is the 57th plate to be identified. It is named after Malpelo Island, the only emerged part of the plate. It is bounded on the west by the Cocos Plate, on the south by the Nazca Plate, on the east by the North Andes Plate, and on the north by the Coiba Plate, separated by the Coiba Transform Fault (CTF). This microplate was previously assumed to be part of the Nazca Plate. The Malpelo Plate borders three major faults of Pacific Colombia, the north to south striking Bahía Solano Fault in the north and the Naya-Micay and Remolino-El Charco Faults in the south.

Motagua Fault

The Motagua Fault (also, Motagua Fault Zone) is a major, active left lateral-moving transform fault which cuts across Guatemala, continuing offshore along the southern Pacific coast of Mexico, returning onshore along the southernmost tip of Oaxaca, then continuing offshore until it merges with the Middle America Trench near Acapulco. It forms part of the tectonic boundary between the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. It is considered the onshore continuation of the Swan Islands Transform Fault which runs under the Caribbean Sea.

The Motagua Fault is regarded by some geologists as part of a system of faults designated the "Motagua-Polochic system" rather than as a discrete single boundary. The Polochic fault (also referred to as the Chixoy-Polochic Fault) lies north and parallel to the Motagua Fault and shares some of the motion between the North American and Caribbean Plates.

The Motagua Fault has been responsible for several major earthquakes in Guatemala's history, including the 7.5 Mw Guatemala 1976 earthquake, and is also notable for its significant visible fault trace.

Okhotsk Plate

The Okhotsk Plate is a minor tectonic plate covering the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin Island and Tōhoku and Hokkaidō in Japan. It was formerly considered a part of the North American Plate, but recent studies indicate that it is an independent plate, bounded on the north by the North American Plate. The boundary is a left-lateral moving transform fault, the Ulakhan Fault. On the east, the plate is bounded by the Pacific Plate at the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench and the Japan Trench, on the south by the Philippine Sea Plate at the Nankai Trough, on the west by the Eurasian Plate, and possibly on the southwest by the Amurian Plate.

Rivera Transform Fault

The Rivera Transform Fault, also referred to as the Rivera Fracture Zone, is a right lateral-moving (dextral) transform fault which lies along the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Mexico just south of the mouth of the Gulf of California. It runs between two segments of the East Pacific Rise, forming the southwest boundary of the small Rivera Plate. The fault is broken into two segments, bisected by a short rifting zone.

Tamayo Fault

The Tamayo Fault is a major right lateral-moving transform fault located on the seabed at the mouth of the Gulf of California. The fault is the southernmost transform in the Gulf of California Rift Zone. The fault links the Rivera Ridge segment of the East Pacific Rise in the south with the Alarcon Basin in the north.

Tonga Plate

The Tonga Plate is a small southwest Pacific tectonic plate or microplate. It is centered at approximately 19° S. latitude and 173° E. longitude. The plate is an elongated plate oriented NNE - SSW and is a northward continuation of the Kermadec linear zone north of New Zealand. The plate is bounded on the east and north by the Pacific Plate, on the northwest by the Niuafo’ou Microplate, on the west and south by the Indo-Australian Plate. The Tonga plate is subducting the Pacific plate along the Tonga Trench. This subduction turns into a transform fault boundary north of Tonga. An active rift or spreading center separates the Tonga from the Australian plate and the Niuafo’ou microplate to the west. The Tonga plate is seismically very active and is rotating clockwise.

These were the plates that moved when the 2009 tsunami hit Samoa.

Walker Lane

The Walker Lane is a geologic trough roughly aligned with the California/Nevada border southward to where Death Valley intersects the Garlock Fault, a major left lateral, or sinistral, strike-slip fault. The north-northwest end of the Walker Lane is between Pyramid Lake in Nevada and California's Lassen Peak where the Honey Lake Fault Zone, the Warm Springs Valley Fault, and the Pyramid Lake Fault Zone meet the transverse tectonic zone forming the southern boundary of the Modoc Plateau and Columbia Plateau provinces. The Walker Lane takes up 15 to 25 percent of the boundary motion between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, the other 75 percent being taken up by the San Andreas Fault system to the west. The Walker Lane may represent an incipient major transform fault zone which could replace the San Andreas as the plate boundary in the future.The Walker Lane deformation belt accommodates nearly 12 mm/yr of dextral shear between the Sierra Nevada-Great Valley Block and North America. The belt is characterized by the northwest-striking trans-current faults and co-evolutionary dip-slip faults formed as result of a spatially segregated displacement field.

Woodlark Plate

The Woodlark Plate is a small tectonic plate located in the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. The Caroline plate subducts along its northern border while the Maoke Plate converges on the west, the Australian plate converges on the south, and on the east an undefined compressive zone which may be a transform fault marking the boundary with the adjoining Solomon Sea Plate.

Ocean zones
Sea level


This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.