RECENT seismological, heat flow and stress measurements in active fault zones such as the San Andreas have led to the suggestion1,2 that such zones can be relatively weak. One explanation for this may be the presence of overpressured fluids along the fault3-5, which would reduce the shear stress required for sliding by partially 'floating' the rock. Although several mechanisms have been proposed for overpressurizing fault fluids3,4,6,7, we recall that 'pressure seals' are known to form in both sedimentary8 and igneous9 rocks by the redistribution of materials in solution; the formation of such a seal along the boundaries of a fault will prevent the communication of fluids between the porous, deforming fault zone and the surrounding country rock. Compaction of fault gouge, under hydrostatic loading and/or during shear, elevates pore pressure in the sealed fault and allows sliding at low shear stress. We report the results of laboratory sliding experiments on granite, which demonstrate that the sliding resistance of faults can be significantly decreased by sealing and compaction. The weakening that results from shear-induced compaction can be rapid, and may provide an instability mechanism for earthquakes.