Backstresses in geologic materials quantified by nanoindentation load-drop experiments

Christopher A. Thom, Lars N. Hansen, Thomas Breithaupt, David L. Goldsby, Kathryn M. Kumamoto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Transient creep of geologic materials is inferred to control many large-scale phenomena such as post-seismic deformation and post-glacial isostatic readjustment. Viscoelastic simulations can reproduce transient creep measured at Earth’s surface via GPS, but these approaches are entirely phenomenological, lacking a microphysical basis. This empirical nature limits our ability to extrapolate to future events and longer time scales. Recent experimental work has identified the importance of strain hardening and backstresses among dislocations in the transient deformation of geologic materials at both high and low temperatures, but very few experimental measurements of such backstresses exist. Here, we develop a nanoindentation load-drop method that can measure the magnitude of backstresses in a material. Using this method and a self-similar Berkovich tip, we measure backstresses in single crystals of olivine, quartz, and plagioclase feldspar at a range of indentation depths from 100–1750 nm, corresponding to geometrically necessary dislocation (GND) densities of order 1014–1015 m−2. Our results reveal a power-law relationship between backstress and GND density with an exponent ranging from 0.44–0.55 for each material, in close agreement with the theoretical prediction (0.5) from Taylor hardening. This work supports the assertion that backstresses and their evolution must be considered in future models of both transient and steady-state deformation in the Earth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPhilosophical Magazine
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors declare no conflict of interest. C.A.T. designed the study and nanoindentation method, carried out experiments and data analysis, and wrote the initial manuscript draft. All authors contributed to editing and revising the manuscript. The authors would like to thank G. Pharr and D. Wallis for useful discussions. All data used in this study are available at . Funding for this study was provided by NERC 1710DG008/JC4 to L.N.H. and C.A.T. and NSF EAR-1806791 to K.M.K.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Rock deformation
  • backstress
  • transient creep


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