Numerical investigation of alternative fracture stiffness measures and their respective scaling behaviours

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We study the mechanical deformation of fractures under normal stress, via tangent and specific fracture stiffnesses, for different length scales using numerical simulations and analytical insights. First, we revisit an equivalent elastic layer model that leads to two expressions: the tangent stiffness is the sum of an “intrinsic” stiffness and the normal stress, and the specific stiffness is the tangent stiffness divided by the fracture aperture at current stress. Second, we simulate the deformation of rough fractures using a boundary element method where fracture surfaces represented by elastic asperities on an elastic half-space follow a self-affine distribution. A large number of statistically identical “parent” fractures are generated, from which sub-fractures of smaller dimensions are extracted. The self-affine distribution implies that the stress-free fracture aperture increases with fracture length with a power law in agreement with the chosen Hurst exponent. All simulated fractures exhibit an increase in the specific stiffness with stress and an average decrease with increase in length consistent with field observations. The simulated specific and tangent stiffnesses are well described by the equivalent layer model provided the “intrinsic” stiffness slightly decreases with fracture length following a power law. By combining numerical simulations and the analytical model, the effect of scale and stress on fracture stiffness measures can be easily separated using the concept of “intrinsic” stiffness. We learn that the primary reason for the variability in specific stiffness with length comes from the fact that the typical aperture of the self-affine fractures itself scales with the length of the fractures.

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