With a little more than 100 years since the publication of seminal and field-defining investigations, active tectonics is still a relatively young sub-discipline of structural geology. This research field addresses the accumulation of strain due to plate tectonic motion and more importantly release thereof through the occurrence of earthquakes (or other strain-releasing events). In that regard, active tectonics aims to characterize the incremental steps of plate tectonics. Determining earthquake chronologies, fault slip rates, and other common objectives importantly feed into our understanding of, for example, fault mechanics and crustal rheology. Characterizing the recurrence of large and potentially devastating earthquakes, is further motivated by seismic hazard assessment and risk mitigation.
The primary data source in active tectonics is surface and shallow subsurface evidence of faulting –presenting itself in topographic and stratigraphic data sets respectively. Field observations and air photo interpretation of displaced stratigraphic and geomorphic markers were used almost 40 years ago to formulate end-member models of earthquake recurrence. Technological developments since then –especially within the last two decades– have dramatically increased the abundance and resolution of topographic data sets and the ability to date stratigraphic units and geomorphic surfaces, enabling the formulation of better-informed conceptual models of earthquake recurrence. Here, we provide an overview of the high-resolution topographic data sets and dating methods that enabled the recent advances of active tectonics.