Environmental Earth Sciences

, Volume 66, Issue 5, pp 1439–1447 | Cite as

Evidence for anthropogenic surface loading as trigger mechanism of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake

  • Christian D. KloseEmail author
Original Article


Two and a half years prior to China’s M7.9 Wenchuan earthquake of May 2008, at least 300 million metric tons of water accumulated with additional seasonal water level changes in the Minjiang River Valley at the eastern margin of the Longmen Shan. This article shows that static surface loading in the Zipingpu water reservoir induced Coulomb failure stresses on the nearby Beichuan thrust fault system at <17 km depth. Triggering stresses exceeded levels of daily lunar and solar tides and perturbed a fault area measuring 416 ± 96 km2. These stress perturbations, in turn, likely advanced the clock of the mainshock and directed the initial rupture propagation upward towards the reservoir on the "Coulomb-like" Beichuan fault with rate- and state-dependent frictional behavior. Static triggering perturbations produced up to 60 years (0.6%) of equivalent tectonic loading, and show strong correlations to the coseismic slip. Moreover, correlations between clock advancement and coseismic slip, observed during the mainshock beneath the reservoir, are strongest for a longer seismic cycle (10kyr) of M > 7 earthquakes. Finally, the daily event rate of the micro-seismicity (M ≥ 0.5) correlates well with the static stress perturbations, indicating destabilization.


Earthquake Geomechanics Geoengineering Triggered Earthquakes Water Reservoir Tides Sun Moon Gravitation Seismology 



The author is grateful to Think Geohazards for its generous financial support. He also thanks the five anonymous reviewers for their constructive critiques and C.H. Scholz and L. Seeber from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for their suggestions and comments to improve this manuscript.


  1. Bartels J (1985) Tidal Forces. In: Harrison JC (eds) Earth tides. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Beeler NM, Lockner DA (2003) Why earthquakes correlate weakly with the solid Earth tides: effects of periodic stress on the rate and probability of earthquake occurrence. JGR 108B8:2391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Biot M (1941) General theory of three-dimensional consolidation. J Appl Phys 12:155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Blanpied ML, Marone CJ, Lockner DA, Byerlee JD, King DP (1998) Quantitative measure of the variation in fault rheology due to fluid-rock interactions. JGR 103:9691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boussinesq J (1885) Application des Potentials a I ’Etude de l ’Equilibre et du Mouvement des Solides Elastiques. Gauthier Villars, ParisGoogle Scholar
  6. Burchfiel BC, Chen Z, Liu Y, Royden LH (1995) Tectonics of the Longmen Shan and adjacent regions. Int Geol Rev 37:661CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burchfiel BC, Royden LH, van der Hilst RD, Hager BH, Chen Z, King RW, Li C, Lu J, Yao H, Kirby E (2008) A geological and geophysical context for the Wenchuan earthquake of 12 May 2008, Sichuan, Peoples’s Republic of China. GSA Today 18:4CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chen S, Wilson CJL, Deng Q, Zhao X, Luo Z (1994) Active faulting and block movement associated with large earthquakes in the Min Shan and Longmen Mountians, northeastern Tibet Plateau. J Geophys Res 99:24025CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cochran E, Vidale J, Tanaka S (2004) Earth tides can trigger shallow thrust fault earthquakes. Science 306:1164–1166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Deng K, Zhou S, Wang R, Robinson R, Zhao C, Cheng W (2010) Evidence that the 2008 Mw 7.9 Wenchuan Earthquake Could Not Have Been Induced by the Zipingpu Reservoir. Bull Seismol Soc of Am 100(5B):2805–2814CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Densmore A, Ellis LMA, Li Y, Zhou R, Hancock GS, Richardson N (2007) Active tectonics of the Beichuan and Pengguan faults at the eastern margin of the Tibet Platau. Tectonics 26:1CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dieterich JH (1979) Modeling of friction, 1, Experimental results and constitutive equations. JGR 84:2169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gahalaut K, Gahalaut VK (2010) Effect of the Zipingpu reservoir impoundment on the occurrence of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and local seismicity. Geophys J Int 183:277–285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Ge S, Liu M, Lu N, Godt JW, Gang L (2009) Did the Zipingpu Reservoir trigger the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake?. Geophys Res Lett 36:L20315. doi: 10.1029/2009GL040349 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gomberg J, Beeler NM, Blanpied ML, Bodin P (1998) Earthquake triggering by transient and static deformations. JGR 103:24,411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gomberg J, Beeler N, Blanpied M (2000) On rate–state and Coulomb failure models. JGR 105:7857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hu X-M (2007) Natural earthquake activities before the Zipingpu dam began to store water. Earthq Res China 2:16–21Google Scholar
  18. Huang Y, Wu J-P, Zhang T-Z, Zhang D-N (2008) Relocation of the M8.0 Wenchuan earthquake and its aftershock sequence. Sci China Ser D Earth Sci 51(12):1703CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Jia D et al (2006) Longmen Shan fold-thrust belt and its relation to the western Sichuan Basin in central China: new insights from hydrocarbon exploration. AAPG Bull 90(9):1425CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Klein FW (1976) Tidal triggering of reservoir-associated earthquakes. Eng Geol 10(2–4):197–210CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Klose CD (2008) The 2008 M7.9 Wenchuan earthquake—result of Local and Abnormal Mass Imbalances? EOS Trans AGU 89(53), Fall Meet Suppl, Abstract U21C-08.
  22. Klose CD (2009) On to what extent stresses resulting from the earth’s surface trigger earthquakes, AGU Fall Meet. S54A-08S54A-08.
  23. Klose CD, Seeber L (2007) Shallow seismicity in stable continental regions. SRL 78:554Google Scholar
  24. Lei X-L, Ma S-L, Wen X-Z, Su JR, Du F (2008) Integrated analysis of stress and regional seismicity by surface loading—a case study of Zipingpu reservoir. Seismol Geol 30(4):1046Google Scholar
  25. Lin A, Ren Z, Don J, Wu X (2009) Co-seismic thrusting rupture and slip distribution produced by the 2008 Mw 7.9 Wenchuan earthquake, China. Tectonophysics 471:203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Liu P-J, Diao G-I, Ning J-Y (2007) Fault plane solutions in Sichuan-Yunnan rhombic block and their dynamic implications. Acta Seismol Sinica 20(5):479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lockner DA, Beeler NM (2003) Stress-induced anisotropic poroelasticity response in sandstone. In: 16th ASCE Engineering Mechanics Conference, University of Washington, SeattleGoogle Scholar
  28. Love AEH (1944) A treatise on the mathematical theory of elasticity, 4th edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 655 ppGoogle Scholar
  29. Mauk FJ, Kienle J (1973) Microearthquakes at St. Augustine Volcano, Alaska, Triggered by Earth Tides. Science 182(4110):386–389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. McGarr A (1988) On the state of lithospheric stress in the absence of pplied tectonic forces. J Geophys Res 93:13,609CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rice J, Cleary M (1976) Some basic stress diffusion solutions for fluid-saturated porous elastic media with compressible constituents. Rev Geophys 14:227CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ruina A (1983) Slip instability and state variable friction laws. JGR 88:10,359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Terzaghi K (1938) Einfluß des Porenwasserdrucks auf den Scherwiderstand der Tone. vol 33. BerlinGoogle Scholar
  34. Wang W-M, Zhao L-F, Li J, Yao Z-X (2008) Rupture process of the Ms8.0 Wenchuan eartquake of Sichuan, China. Chin J Geophys 51(5):1403Google Scholar
  35. Wang YZ, Wang EN, Shen ZK, Wang M, Gan WJ, Qiao XJ, Meng GJ, Li TM, Tao W, Yang YL, Cheng J, Li P (2008) GPS-constrained inversion of present-day slip rates along major faults of the Sichuan-Yunnan region, China. Sci China Ser D Earth Sci 51(9):1267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Yang ZX, Waldhauser F, Chen YT, Richards PG (2005) Double-difference relocation of earhquakes in central-western China, 1992–1999. J Seismol 9:241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Yao H, Beghein C, van der Hilst RD (2008) Surface-wave array tomography in SE Tibet from ambient seismic noise and two-station analysis: II—crustal and upper mantle structure. Geophys J Int 173:205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Zhang Y, Feng WP, Xu LS, Zhou CH, Chen YT (2009) Spatio-temporal rupture process of the 2008 great Wenchuan earthquake. Sci China Seri D Earth Sci 52(2):145CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Zhou R et al (2007) Active tectonics of the Longmen Shan region of the eastern margin of the Tibet Platau. Acta Geol Sinica 81:593CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Think GeohazardsNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations