May 12 China earthquake could trigger another major quake in the region
A team of researchers have determined that the magnitude 7.9 earthquake in China's Sichuan province on May 12 has brought several nearby faults closer to failure and could trigger another major quake in the region.
Researchers analyzing the May 2008 Wenchuan earthquake have found that geological stress has significantly increased on three major fault systems in the region.
Geophysicists used computer models to calculate the changes in stress along the Xianshuihe, Kunlun, and Min Jiang faults-strike-slip faults like the San Andreas-which lie about 150 to 450 kilometers (90 to 280 miles) from the Longmen Shan rupture that caused the devastating quake.
The research team was led by Shinji Toda of the Geological Survey of Japan, and includes Jian Lin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Mustapha Meghraoui of the Institute of Geophysics in Strasbourg (France), and Ross Stein of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The research team also examined seismic activity in the region over the past decade.
They found that the May 12 event has doubled the probabilities of future earthquakes on these fault lines. Specifically, they estimated the probability of another earthquake of magnitude 6 or greater in the region is 57 to 71 percent over the next decade.
There is an 8 to 12 percent chance of a quake larger than magnitude 7 in the next decade and 23-31 percent in the next 30 years.
"One great earthquake seems to make the next one more likely, not less," said Stein, who has been collaborating with Lin and Toda for nearly two decades. "We tend to think of earthquakes as relieving stress on a fault. That may be true for the one that ruptured, but not for the adjacent faults," he added.
In 1999, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, was followed four months later by an M7.1 event in nearby Duzce.
The devastating December 2004 Sumatra earthquake (M9.2) and tsunami were followed by an M8.7 quake three months later.
"Because the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most seismically active regions in the world, we believe there is credible evidence for a new major quake in this region," said Lin, a senior scientist in WHOI's Department of Geology and Geophysics.
"The research community cannot forecast the timing of earthquakes, and there are still significant uncertainties in our models. But the Turkey and Sumatra events indicate that one major earthquake can indeed promote another," he added.
"We hope the long-term forecasting allows the Chinese government to make it a priority to mitigate future damage," Toda said