Skip to main content

Characteristics of land subsidence, earth fissures and related disaster chain effects with respect to urban hazards in Xi’an, China


The ancient capital of Xi’an is a typical city in China with a shortage of water resources. With an urban population of 7 million, its domestic and industrial use of water depends almost entirely on groundwater. Large-scale long-term extraction of groundwater has caused severe land subsidence and triggered the reactivation of active normal faults in the Quaternary under-consolidated sediments underlying the city. This has further led to ground ruptures that have gradually evolved into earth fissure zones. During this process, there has been a close spatiotemporal relationship between land subsidence and the formation of earth fissures. From field monitoring data, the subsidence bowls are typically located in loess depressions between earth fissure zones within structural blocks of sediment cut by active Quaternary faults and preexisting fault planes. The subsidence bowls are generally elliptical in shape, with the long axes consistent with the preferred orientation of the earth fissures. The underlying Quaternary active faults and preexisting fault planes predispose the intervening sediment blocks to formation of earth fissures, and intense groundwater extraction has led to accelerated subsidence and earth fissuring during the past 50 years. Mining groundwater, land subsidence and earth fissures occur in a sequence and constitute a disaster chain with respect to urban hazards in Xi’an. Thus, it is important to understand the relationships between these events. This paper summarizes the characteristics of land subsidence and earth fissures in Xi’an and discusses the chain of relationships that connects them.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12


  • Adiyaman IB (2012) Land subsidence and earth fissures due to groundwater pumping. Dissertation, University of Arizona

  • Bankher KA, Al-Harthi AA (1999) Earth fissuring and land subsidence in western Saudi Arabia. Nat Hazards 20:21–42

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bouwer H (1977) Land subsidence and cracking due to ground water depletion. Ground Water 15:358–364

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Budhu M, Shelke A (2008) The formation of earth fissures due to groundwater decline. In: Proceedings of the 12th international conference of international association for computer methods and advances in geomechanics (IACMAG), pp 3051–3059

  • Burbey TJ (2010) Mechanisms for earth fissure formation in heavily pumped basins. Land subsidence, associated hazards and the role of natural resources development. In: Proceedings of EISOLS 2010, Quere´taro. IAHS Publ., 339

  • Carpenter MC (1993) Earth-fissure movements associated with fluctuations in ground-water levels near the Picacho Mountains, South-Central Arizona, 1980–84: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 497-H

  • China Geological Survey (2015) Survey report of China land subsidence and earth fissures, Beijing (in Chinese)

  • El Baruni SS (1994) Earth fissures caused by groundwater withdrawal in Sarir South agricultural project area, Libya. Appl Hydrogeol 2:45–52

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fletcher JE, Karl H, Peterson HB, Chler VN (1954) Piping Eos Transactions American Geophysical Union 35:258–263

  • Galloway D, Jones DR, Ingebritsen SE (1999) Land subsidence in the United States. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1182

  • Helm DC (1994) Hydraulic forces that play a role in generating fissures at depth. Bull Assoc Eng Geol 31(3):293–304

    Google Scholar 

  • Hernandez-Marin M (2009) Numerical evaluation and analysis of the occurrence of earth fissures in faulted sedimentary basins. Dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

  • Holzer TL (1976) Ground failure in areas of subsidence due to ground-water decline in the United States. In: Proceedings of the second international symposium on land subsidence. IAHS Publ., vol 212, pp 423–433

  • Holzer TL, Pampeyan EH (1981) Earth fissures and localized differential subsidence. Water Resour Res 17:223–227

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holzer TL, Davis SN, Lofgren BE (1979) Faulting caused by groundwater extraction in southcentral Arizona. J Geophys Res 84:603–612

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hyndman D, Hyndman D (2014) Natural hazards and disasters. Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning, Belmont

    Google Scholar 

  • Jachens RC, Holzer TL (1982) Differential compaction mechanism for earth fissures near Casa Grande, Arizona. Geol Soc Am Bull 93:998–1012

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kontogianni V, Pytharouli S, Stiros S (2007) Ground subsidence, Quaternary faults and vulnerability of utilities and transportation networks in Thessaly, Greece. Environ Geol 52:1085–1095

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lee C, Zhang J, Zhang Y (1996) Evolution and origin of the ground fissures in Xian, China. Eng Geol 43:45–55

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leonard RJ (1929) An earth fissure in southern arizona. J Geol 37(8):765–774

  • Li Y, Yang J, Hu X (2000) Origin of ground fissures in the Shanxi Graben system, Northern China. Eng Geol 55:267–275

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Liu G (1986) The ground fissures in Xi’an. J Xi’an Coll Geosci 4:9–22 (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Pacheco-Martínez J, Hernandez-Marín M, Burbey TJ, González-Cervantes N, Ortíz-Lozano JÁ, Zermeño-De-Leon ME, Solís-Pinto A (2013) Land subsidence and ground failure associated to groundwater exploitation in the Aguascalientes Valley, México. Eng Geol 164:172–186

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peng J (2012) Geohazards of Xi’an ground fissures. Science Press, Beijing (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Peng J, Du D, Su S, Zhang J (1992) the relationship between the active fault and geological disasters-take Wei River basin as example. In: Proceedings of the 4th national conference of engineering geology. Ocean Press, Beijing, pp 158–165 (in Chinese)

  • Peng J, Fan W, Xi’an L, Wang Q, Feng X, Zhang J, Li X, Lu Q, Huang Q, Ma R (2007) Some key questions in the formation of ground fissures in the Fen-Wei Basin. J Eng Geol 15:433–440 (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Peng J, Chen L, Huang Q, Men Y, Fan W, Yan J (2013) Physical simulation of ground fissures triggered by underground fault activity. Eng Geol 155:19–30

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Raspini F, Loupasakis C, Rozos D, Moretti S (2013) Advanced interpretation of land subsidence by validating multi-interferometric SAR data: the case study of the Anthemountas basin (Northern Greece). Nat Hazards Earth Syst Sci 13:2425–2440

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rothenburg L, Obah A, El Baruni S (1995) Horizontal ground movements due to water abstraction and formation of earth fissures. In: Proceedings of the fifth international symposium on land subsidence, Hague. IAHS Publ., 234

  • Schumann HH, Poland JF (1969) Land subsidence, earth fissures, and groundwater withdrawal in south-central Arizona, USA. In: Proceedings of Tokyo symposium on land subsidence, IASH-UNESCO, pp 295–302

  • Sheng Z (1996) Conceptual and numerical models for the mechanics of fissuring caused by groundwater withdrawal. University of Nevada, Reno. Dissertation, University of Nevada

  • Wang J (2000) Study the theory and its application of ground fissure and hazard. Shanxi Scientific Press, Xi’an (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Wang L (2004) Epigenetic time-dependent structure and human engineering. Geological Press, Beijing (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Wu Q, Chen P (2002) The problem and countermeasure of ground fracture in city. Chin J Geol Hazard Control 13:70–72 (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Xue Y, Zhang Y (2016) Land subsidence and land fissures in the southern Yangtze River Delta. Resour Surv Environ 37:1–9 (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

  • Zhang J (1990) Research on ground fissures in the region of Xi’an. Northwest University Press, Xi’an (in Chinese)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was financially supported by the National Key Fundamental Research Program of China (973) (No. 2014cb744702), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 41372328) and Project of Xi’an Underground Metro Co. Ltd. (D3-YJ-032012057). And above all, special thanks to the reviewers of this paper for their helpful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. B. Peng.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Peng, J.B., Sun, X.H., Wang, W. et al. Characteristics of land subsidence, earth fissures and related disaster chain effects with respect to urban hazards in Xi’an, China. Environ Earth Sci 75, 1190 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI:


  • Land subsidence
  • Earth fissure
  • Groundwater extraction
  • Disaster chain
  • Xi’an City