Catastrophic Failure: How and When? Insights From 4-D In Situ X-ray Microtomography

Alexis Cartwright-Taylor*, Ian G. Main, Ian B. Butler, Florian Fusseis, Michael Flynn, Andrew King

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Citations (Scopus)


Catastrophic failure of brittle rocks is important in managing risk associated with system-sized material failure. Such failure is caused by nucleation, growth, and coalescence of microcracks that spontaneously self-organize along localized damage zones under compressive stress. Here we present X-ray microtomography observations that elucidate the in situ micron-scale processes, obtained from novel tri-axial compression experiments conducted in a synchrotron. We examine the effect of microstructural heterogeneity in the starting material (Ailsa Craig microgranite; known for being virtually crack-free) on crack network evolution and localization. To control for heterogeneity, we introduced a random nanoscale crack network into one sample by thermal stressing, leaving a second sample as-received. By assessing the time-dependent statistics of crack size and spatial distribution, we test the hypothesis that the degree of starting heterogeneity influences the order and predictability of the phase transition between intact and failed states. We show that this is indeed the case at the system-scale. The initially more heterogeneous (heat-treated) sample showed clear evidence for a second-order transition: inverse power law acceleration in correlation length with a well-defined singularity near failure and distinct changes in the scaling exponents. The more homogeneous (untreated) sample showed evidence for a first-order transition: exponential increase in correlation length associated with distributed damage and unstable crack nucleation ahead of abrupt failure. In both cases, anisotropy in the initial porosity dictated the fault orientation, and system-sized failure occurred when the correlation length approached the grain size. These results have significant implications for the predictability of catastrophic failure in different materials.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020JB019642
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Ailsa Craig microgranite
  • heterogeneity
  • microcrack network evolution: nucleation localization and scaling
  • phase transitions and the predictability of failure
  • rock deformation and faulting
  • time-resolved in situ synchrotron X-ray microtomography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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