Natural Hazards

, Volume 71, Issue 1, pp 135–150 | Cite as

The atmospheric water as a triggering factor for earthquakes in the central Virginia seismic zone

  • Betim MuçoEmail author
Original Paper


Even though central Virginia is far from the nearest plate boundaries, the region is well-known for minor-to-moderate shocks, which have occurred frequently since at least the eighteenth century. Many of its people have experienced small earthquakes, while infrequent larger ones have caused damage. The largest destructive earthquake (magnitude 5.8) in this seismic zone was recorded in August 2011. Smaller earthquakes that cause little or no damage are felt each year or two. It is difficult to link the earthquakes of this zone to known small faults which are numerous, deeply buried and do not show up at the surface. The mean earthquake depth since 1960 is 6.7 km. On the other hand, central Virginia is a big collector and transporter of precipitation water, which flows to the Atlantic Ocean through the James River and its tributaries. There are about 2,000 abandoned mining sites in Virginia with underground openings that can facilitate the interception and conveyance of surface water. This paper presents evidence that seismic activity in certain zones can be associated clearly with the hydrological effects of abundant precipitation. Such effects can increase tectonic stress, which surpasses the marginal amount when an earthquake occurs. We analyze the cross-correlation between precipitation or water discharge in the rivers and earthquake occurrence in the central Virginia seismic zone. This correlation is examined both over a long-term span (57–92 years) and with regard to individual cases in which earthquakes have followed the occurrence of intense hydrological phenomena such as torrential rainfall or hurricanes. As we probe for a correlation between earthquake time series for central Virginia and the monthly precipitation series at hydrometeorological stations located in the zone, we observe that the best cross-correlation is obtained for a time period of 3 months. The same time period applies to certain historical earthquakes that were preceded by large amounts of precipitation. These results support the hydroseismicity hypothesis, which points to the role of water in the generation of intraplate seismicity.

Key words

Seismicity of CVSZ Cross-correlation Pore pressure Underground water Rainfall 



I would like to thank David Simpson of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) for supporting me presenting this work at IRIS workshop in Boise, Idaho, June 2012 and at the 33rd General Assembly of the European Seismological Commission, Moscow, Russia, August 2012. I am very grateful to John Costain of Virginia Tech for his help and comments and for encouraging me to publish this study. The manuscript has enormously improved from remarks and comments of Arben Pitarka and two other anonymous reviewers for which I wholeheartedly thank them. Special thanks go to Robert Herschbach who generously polished the English of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IRIS ConsultantRockvilleUSA

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