Journal of Mountain Science

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 395–402 | Cite as

The origin of the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake determined by the analysis on the active Longmenshan nappe in terms of rockmass mechanics

  • Zhixin Yan
  • Guozhe MaEmail author
  • Binxiang Yuan
  • Fujun Niu


On 12 May 2008, the magnitude 8.0 Wenchuan Earthquake occurred along the Longmen Shan nappe, Sichuan, China. This devastating earthquake led to a heavy death toll of greater than 80,000. The seismic origin of this earthquake is currently hotly debated. We suppose that it is a special type of intraplate earthquake called an activenappe-type earthquake. Using a holistic methodology, incorporating rockmass structure cybernetics and Byerlee’s law, we present a comprehensive study on the geological origin of macroseisms in the Longmen Shan area and the seismic origin of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Previous studies of neotectonic activity indicate that the Longmen Shan nappe moves at a rate of 1∼3 mm/yr, due to horizontal compressive stress from the Tibetan Plateau. The difference between movement rates in the Bayankala block, Longmen Shan nappe and Sichuan Basin cause slow shear stress and strain accumulation in the Longmen Shan nappe. It is exhibited a relatively simple linear relations for the shear strength and the buried depth of the structural planes, and the detachment layer of the nappe has a higher shearing-sliding strength compared to the overlying fault planes and the underlying ductile shear belts, thus making it more prone to stick-slip deformation. Therefore, the detachment layer was the main section responsible for the Wenchuan earthquake. The initial rupture burst in the detachment layer under the Yingxiu-Beichuan fault, the rupture area nearly 1.4454 × 104 km2, encompassed the cross point of the Yingxiu and the Anxian-Guanxian faults with the detachment layer, then caused the Yingxiu — Beichuan and Anxian-Guanxian faults took an active part in this earthquake, so this earthquake might consist of three chain-like earthquake stages, totally increasing the duration of this earthquake an unusually large amount, to 120 s. The focal depth spanned range of 10–20km, consistent with the observed result of this focal depth by several agencies.


Active nappe Rockmass structure cybernetics Shear-slip failure Wenchuan earthquake Seismicorigin 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Alexander LD, Michael AE, Li Y, et al. (2006) Active tectonics of the Beichuan and Pengguan faults at the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau. Tectonics 26(TC4005): 1–17.Google Scholar
  2. Burchfiel BC (2008) China Quake Forces Rethink Over Hazard Maps. New Scientist, No.2671, 30 August 2008.Google Scholar
  3. Burchfiel BC, Royden LH, Vander Hilst RD, et al. (2008) A geological and geophysical context for the Wenchuan earthquake of 12 May 2008, Sichuan, People’s Republic of China. GSA Today 18(7): 4–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Burchfiel C, Chen Z, Liu Y, et al. (1995) Tectonics of the Longmen Shan and adjacent regions. International Geology Review 37: 661–735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cai XL, Zhu JS, Cao JM, et al. (2007) 3D structure and dynamic types of the lithospheric crust in continental China and its adjacent regions. Geology in China 34(4): 543–557. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  6. Cai XL, Cao JM, Zhu JS, et al. (2008) A preliminary study on the 3-D crust structure for the the Longmen Shan lithosphere and the genesis of the huge Wenchuan earthquake, Sichuan, China. Journal of Chengdu University of technology (Science & Technology Edition) 35(4): 357–364. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  7. CSBMPCO (China seismological bureau monitoring and prediction company organization (2009) Wenchuan 8.0 Earthquake Science Research Report. Seismological Press, Beijing, China, pp 1–65. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  8. Chen Y, Huang TF, Liu ER (2009) The Physics of Rocks. Press of University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, pp 96, 162–165(In Chinese)Google Scholar
  9. Deng QD, Zhang PZ, Ran YK, et al. (2002) Basic characteristics of active tectonics of China. Science in China (Series D) 32(12): 1020–1030 (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  10. Deng QD, Zhang PZ, Ran YK, et al. (2003) Active tectonics and earthquake activities in China. Earth Science Frontiers 10(sup): 66–72. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  11. Guo AN, Guo ZJ (2009) Rethink About the Forcast for the Wenchuan Earthquake. Xi’an Map Publishing House, Xi’an, pp 70–90. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  12. Guo ZW, Deng KL, Han YH (1996) The formation and development of Sichuan Basin. Geological Publishing House, Beijing, China, pp 89–102. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  13. Hu YX (2005) Earthquake Engineering. Seismological Press, Beijing, China, pp 90–108. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  14. Jin WZ, Tang LJ, Yang KM, et al. (2008) Progress and problem of study on characters of the Longmen Mountain thrust belt. Geological Review 54(1): 37–46. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  15. Jin Y, Jiang XD (2002) Lithospheric Dynamics. Science Press, Beijing. pp 7–24. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  16. Kearey P, Klepeis KA, Vine FJ (2008) Global Tectonics(3thd edit). Oxford: A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Publication, pp 37–41.Google Scholar
  17. Lay T, Aster RC, Forsyth DW, et al. (2008) Seismological Grand Challenges in Understanding Earth’s Dynamic Systems. Longrange Sciecne Plan for Seismology Workshop. September 18–19, 2008, Denver, Colorado, USA.Google Scholar
  18. Lay T, Wallace TC (1995) Modern Global Seismology. Academic Press, Nework, USA, pp 1–32Google Scholar
  19. Li Y, Zhou RJ, Densmore AL, et al. (2006a) Geomorphic evidence for the late cenozoic strike-sliping and thrusting in Longmen mountain at the eastern margin of the Tibetan plateau. Quaterary Sciences 2(1): 40–50. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  20. Zhou RJ, Li Y, Densmore AL, et al. (2006b) Active tectonics of the eastern margin of the Tibet plateau. Journal of Mineralogy and Petrology 26(2): 41–51. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  21. Li Y, Zhou RJ, Alexander LD, Michael AE, et al. (2009) Active tectonics of Longmenshan seismic belt and surface rupture in Wenchuan Earthquake and research progress.
  22. Liu SG, Tian XB, Li ZW, et al. (2008) Structural features of the central Longmen Mountains and the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan, China. Journal of Chengdu University of Technology (Science & Technology Edition) 35(4): 388–395. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  23. Ma ZJ, Zhang JS, Wang YP (2001) Changes of the 3d movement sense along with the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau: Review on nonsmooth formation in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. In: Ma ZJ, Wang YP, Zhang YP (eds.) Study on the Recent Deformation and Dynamics of the Lithosphere of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp 88–105. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  24. Scholz CH (1998) Earthquakes and friction laws. Nature 391:37–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Shearer PM (2009) Introduction to Seismology (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press, New York. pp 293–296.Google Scholar
  26. Sun GZ, Sun Y (2004) Geological Engineering Principles. Geological Publishing House, Beijing, China. pp 12–25. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  27. Xu XW (2009) Album of 5.12 Wenchuan 8.0 Earthquake Surface Ruptures, China. Beijing: Seismological Press. pp 1–94. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  28. Xu XW, Wen XZ, Ye JQ (2008) The Ms 8.0 Wenchuan Earthquake surface ruptures and its seismogenic structure. Seismology and Geology 30(3): 597–629. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  29. Yu CW (2003) The Complexity of Geosystems (Book 1). Geological Publishing House, Beijing, China. pp 1–30. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  30. Wan TF (2004) Outline of China Geotectonics. Geological Publishing House, Beijing, China. pp 198–232. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  31. Wang EQ, Meng QR, Chen ZL (2001) Early Mesozoic left-lateral movement along the Longmen Shan fault belt and its tectonic implications. Earth Science Frontiers 8(2): 375–384. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  32. Wang EQ, Meng QR (2008) Discussion on the Mesozoic and Cenozoic tectonic evolution of the Longmen Shan. Science in China (Series D) 38(10): 1221–1233. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  33. Zhang GM, Ma HS, Wang H, et al. (2005) Boundaries between active-tectonic blocks and strong earthquakes in the China mainland. Chinese Journal of Geophysics 48(3): 602–610. (In Chinese with English abstract)Google Scholar
  34. Zhang PZ, Deng QD, Zhang GM, et al. (2003) China’s strong seismicity and active blocks. Science in China (Series D) 33(4): 356–372. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  35. Zhang PZ, Shen Z, Wang M (2004) Continuous deformation of the Tibetan Plateau from Global Positioning System data. Geology 32: 809–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Zhang PZ, Wen XZ, Xu XW, et al. (2009) Tectonic model of the great Wenchuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, Sichuan, China. Chinese Science Bulletin (Chinese Version) 54(7): 944–953. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  37. Zhang PZ, Wen XZ, Shen ZK, et al. (2010) Oblique, high-Angle, listric-reverse faulting and associated development of strain: The Wenchuan Earthquake of May 12, 2008, Sichuan, China. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 38: 353–382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Zhou RJ, Huang RQ, Lei JC, et al. (2008) Surface rupture and hazard characteristics of the magnitude 8.0 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province. Chinese Journal of Rock Mechanics and Engineering 27(11): 2173–2183. (In Chinese)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Science Press, Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, CAS and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Zhixin Yan
    • 1
    • 2
  • Guozhe Ma
    • 1
    Email author
  • Binxiang Yuan
    • 1
    • 2
  • Fujun Niu
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Civil Engineering and MechanicsLanzhou UniversityLanzhouChina
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Mechanics on Western Disaster and Environment Ministry of Education, ChinaLanzhouChina
  3. 3.Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research InstituteChinese Academic of ScienceLanzhouChina

Personalised recommendations