Sichuan quake was once-in-4,000-year event: scientists

September 27, 2009
Residents search among the rubble of a collapsed building in Dujiangyan southwest China Sichuan province in May 2008. People who were killed, injured or bereaved in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake had the cruel misfortune to be victims of an event that probably occurs just once in four millennia, seismologists said on Sunday.

People who were killed, injured or bereaved in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake had the cruel misfortune to be victims of an event that probably occurs just once in four millennia, seismologists said on Sunday.

In a paper published in the journal , Shen Zhengkang of the China Earthquake Administration and colleagues said the May 12, 2008 quake comprised a strong , unusual geology and the failure of three subterranean "barriers" to resist the shock.

Using (GPS) markers and data from satellite-borne interferometric radar, the scientists built up a picture of the Longmen Shan fault, on the northwest rim of the Sichuan basin, as it was gouged open by the 7.9-magnitude temblor.

Nearly 88,000 people were killed in what was the largest seismic event in China in more than 50 years.

The investigators said the sub-surface geometry is complex, varying significantly along the length of the .

In the southwest of the zone, the fault's plane dips slightly to the northwest. It then rides up, becoming nearly vertical, in the zone's northeast.

Added to this is a change in motion -- principal movement -- along the fault.

The motion initially starts out as a thrust, a vertical movement in which lower layers of rock are pushed up and on top of higher layers. Farther along the fault, this changes to so-called strike-slip movements, which are lateral.

Three junction segments which have held up for years received extraordinary blows that day when the main shock was unleashed about 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of the city of Yingxiu, the paper says.

A wave of energy rocketed along the fault, ripping open the rock beneath Yingxiu as well as Beichuan and Nanba, which is where the biggest earth slippages -- and fatalities -- occurred.

These three locations were "barriers" that were smashed down in a single, exceptional event and caused the rest of the fault to rip open, the study said.

"We estimate that the failure of barriers and rupture along multiple segments takes place approximately once in 4,000 years," it said.

Offering a morsel of comfort, Shen told AFP: "There are still aftershocks, but I don't think there is big chance in that region of another big one" for the foreseeable future.

(c) 2009 AFP

Explore further: Geologists study China earthquake for glimpse into future

Related Stories

Geologists study China earthquake for glimpse into future

July 6, 2008

The May 12 earthquake that rocked Sichuan Province in China was the first there in recorded history and unexpected in its magnitude. Now a team of geoscientists is looking at the potential for future earthquakes due to earthquake-induced ...

Why do earthquakes stop?

February 6, 2008

The underlying structure of a fault determines whether an earthquake rupture will jump from one fault to another, magnifying its size and potential devastation. Understanding why some earthquakes terminate along a fault, ...

Scientists explore Sichuan fault

August 14, 2008

Durham University expert, Alex Densmore, is to explore the fault lines that caused the May 12th earthquake in China that killed 69,000 people.

Biggest recorded earthquake was brewing for four centuries

October 7, 2005

The earthquake that rocked Chile in 1960 - at magnitude 9.5, the biggest ever recorded - was preceded by almost 400 years of accumulating stress, according to studies of the region's buried soils and sand. Strain had been ...

Recommended for you

Study finds climate determines shapes of river basins

July 18, 2018

There are more than 1 million river basins carved into the topography of the United States, each collecting rainwater to feed the rivers that cut through them. Some basins are as small as individual streams, while others ...

New insight into Greenland's melting glaciers

July 17, 2018

New research into Greenland's glaciers will help bring accurate sea level rise forecasts – which are crucial in preparing for the impacts of climate change—a step closer.

Thawing permafrost microbiomes fuel climate change

July 16, 2018

A University of Queensland-led international study could lead to more accurate predictions or the rate of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions produced by thawing permafrost in the next 100 years.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sep 27, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Sep 28, 2009
Agree the past evidence may not be applicable.

Also, shortly after the event, I was talking to the owner of a local Chinese grocery. When I mentioned the possibility that weight of the water behind the new Three Gorges Dam was responsible -- apparently that thought had already occurred to the Chinese community.

We in California are regularly exploring and discovering new factors about our situation. Some reassuring, many not. It's just a little hard to believe the result of a Chinese study that effectively says, "We couldn't have anticipated that this would happen, so the government isn't at fault."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.