GPS station P311 in the eastern Sierra Nevada of California, administered by the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory. Modest, contemporary vertical uplift of this and other GPS stations in the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges across central California is attributed to human-caused groundwater depletion in the adjacent San Joaquin Valley.
Winter rains and summer groundwater pumping in California's Central Valley make the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges sink and rise by a few millimeters each year, creating stress on the state's earthquake faults that could increase the risk of a quake.
Gradual depletion of the Central Valley aquifer because of groundwater pumping also raises these mountain ranges by a similar amount each year - about the thickness of a dime - with a cumulative rise over the past 150 years of up to 15 centimeters (6 inches), according to calculations by a team of geophysicists.
While the seasonal changes in the Central Valley aquifer have not yet been firmly associated with any earthquakes, studies have shown that similar levels of periodic stress, such as that caused by the motions of the moon and sun, increase the number of microquakes on the San Andreas Fault, which runs parallel to the mountain ranges. If these subtle seasonal load changes are capable of influencing the occurrence of microquakes, it is possible that they can sometimes also trigger a larger event,
said Roland Bürgmann, UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley.
"The stress is very small, much less than you need to build up stress on a fault toward an earthquake, but in some circumstances such small stress changes can be the straw that broke the camel's back; it could just give that extra push to get a fault to fail," Bürgmann said.
Bürgmann is a coauthor of a report published online this week by the journal Nature
. The study, based on detailed global positioning satellite (GPS) measurements from California and Nevada between 2007 and 2010, was led by former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellows Colin Amos, now at Western Washington University, and Pascal Audet, now of the University of Ottawa. The detailed GPS analysis was performed by William C. Hammond and Geoffrey Blewitt of the University of Nevada, Reno.