Structural geology is the study of the three dimensional distribution of rock bodies and their planar or folded surfaces, and their internal fabrics.
Structural geology includes features of and overlaps with facets of geomorphology, metamorphism and geotechnical studies. By studying the three dimensional structure of rocks and regions, inferences on tectonic history, past geological environments and deformation events can be made. These can be fixed in time using stratigraphical controls as well as geochronology, to determine when the structural features formed.
More formally stated it is the branch of geology that deals with the geological processes through which the application of a force results in the transformation of a shape, arrangement or internal fabric of the rock into another shape, arrangement or internal fabric. Petroleum structural geologists can interpret prospect or basin scale geology using several techniques. These techniques include the interpretation of surface data, well data, remote sensing data and seismic data. Many structural geologists now use 2D/3D geological modelling software in order to integrate these varied datasets.
Structural geology is a critical part of engineering geology, which is concerned with the physical and mechanical properties of natural rocks. Structural fabrics and defects such as faults, folds, foliations and joints are internal weaknesses of rocks which may affect the stability of human engineered structures such as dams, road cuts, open pit mines and underground mines or road tunnels.
Geotechnical risk, including earthquake risk can only be investigated by inspecting a combination of structural geology and geomorphology. In addition areas of karst landscapes which are underlain by underground caverns and potential sinkholes or collapse features are of importance for these scientists. In addition, areas of steep slopes are potential collapse or landslide hazards.
Environmental geologists and hydrogeologists or hydrologists need to understand structural geology because structures are sites of groundwater flow and penetration, which may affect, for instance, seepage of toxic substances from waste dumps, or seepage of salty water into aquifers.
Plate tectonics is structural geology on a large scale, usually referring to the structural effects of plate collisions and other plate tectonic features.
This branch of structural geology deals mainly with the orientation, deformation and relationships of stratigraphy (bedding), which may have been faulted, folded or given a foliation by some tectonic event. This is mainly a geometric science, from which cross sections and three dimensional block models of rocks, regions, terranes and parts of the Earth's crust can be generated.
Study of regional structure is important in understanding orogeny, plate tectonics and more specifically in the oil, gas and mineral exploration industries as structures such as faults, folds and unconformities are primary controls on ore mineralisation and oil traps.
Modern regional structure is being investigated using seismic tomography and seismic reflection in three dimensions, providing unrivaled images of the Earth's interior, its faults and the deep crust. Further information from geophysics such as gravity and airborne magnetics can provide information on the nature of rocks imaged in the deep crust.
The term hade is occasionally used and is the deviation of a plane from vertical i.e. (90°-dip).
Fold axis plunge is measured in dip and dip direction (strictly, plunge and azimuth of plunge). The orientation of a fold axial plane is measured in strike and dip or dip and dip direction.
Lineations are measured in terms of dip and dip direction, if possible. Often lineations occur expressed on a planar surface and can be difficult to measure directly. In this case, the lineation may be measured from the horizontal as a rake or pitch upon the surface.
Rake is measured by placing a protractor flat on the planar surface, with the flat edge horizontal and measuring the angle of the lineation clockwise from horizontal. The orientation of the lineation can then be calculated from the rake and strike-dip information of the plane it was measured from, using a stereographic projection.
If a fault has lineations formed by movement on the plane, eg; slickensides, this is recorded as a lineation, with a rake, and annotated as to the indication of throw on the fault.
Generally it is easier to record strike and dip information of planar structures in dip/dip direction format as this will match all the other structural information you may be recording about folds, lineations, etc., although there is an advantage to using different formats that discriminate between planar and linear data.
Planar structures are named according to their order of formation, with original sedimentary layering the lowest at S0. Often it is impossible to identify S0 in highly deformed rocks, so numbering may be started at an arbitrary number or given a letter (SA, for instance). In cases where there is a bedding-plane foliation caused by burial metamorphism or diagenesis this may be enumerated as S0a.
If there are folds, these are numbered as F1, F2, etc. Generally the axial plane foliation or cleavage of a fold is created during folding, and the number convention should match. For example, an F2 fold should have an S2 axial foliation.
Deformations are numbered according to their order of formation with the letter D denoting a deformation event. For example D1, D2, D3. Folds and foliations, because they are formed by deformation events, should correlate with these events. For example an F2 fold, with an S2 axial plane foliation would be the result of a D2 deformation.
Metamorphic events may span multiple deformations. Sometimes it is useful to identify them similarly to the structural features for which they are responsible, eg; M2. This may be possible by observing porphyroblast formation in cleavages of known deformation age, by identifying metamorphic mineral assemblages created by different events, or via geochronology.
Intersection lineations in rocks, as they are the product of the intersection of two planar structures, are named according to the two planar structures from which they are formed. For instance, the intersection lineation of a S1 cleavage and bedding is the L1-0 intersection lineation (also known as the cleavage-bedding lineation).
Stretching lineations may be difficult to quantify, especially in highly stretched ductile rocks where minimal foliation information is preserved. Where possible, when correlated with deformations (as few are formed in folds, and many are not strictly associated with planar foliations), they may be identified similar to planar surfaces and folds, eg; L1, L2. For convenience some geologists prefer to annotate them with a subscript S, for example Ls1 to differentiate them from intersection lineations, though this is generally redundant.