Topographic Stresses and the 2008 Wenchuan, China earthquake -- AGU 2013 Presentation

Richard Styron

For the AGU Fall Meeting 2013, we (myself, Eric Hetland, Guohong Zhang) presented a talk on stresses resulting from high topography and how those stresses can influence faulting. The presentation focused on the 2008 Wenchuan, China earthquake. Here is the slideshow:

The influence of topographic stresses on faulting, emphasizing the 2008 Wenchuan, China earthquake rupture

Richard Styron, Eric Hetland, Guohong Zhang


The weight of large mountains produces stresses in the crust that locally may be on the order of tectonic stresses (10-100 MPa). These stresses have a significant and spatially-variable deviatoric component that may be resolved as strong normal and shear stresses on range-bounding faults. In areas of high relief, the shear stress on faults can be comparable to inferred stress drops in earthquakes, and fault-normal stresses may be greater than 50 MPa, and thus may potentially influence fault rupture. Additionally, these stresses may be used to make inferences about the orientation and magnitude of tectonic stresses, for example by indicating a minimum stress needed to be overcome by tectonic stress. We are studying these effects in several tectonic environments, such as the Longmen Shan (China), the Denali fault (Alaska, USA) and the Wasatch Fault Zone (Utah, USA). We calculate the full topographic stress tensor field in the crust in a study region by convolution of topography with Green's functions approximating stresses from a point load on the surface of an elastic halfspace, using the solution proposed by Liu and Zoback [1992]. The Green's functions are constructed from Boussinesq's solutions for a vertical point load on an elastic halfspace, as well as Cerruti's solutions for a horizontal surface point load, accounting for irregular surface boundary and topographic spreading forces. The stress tensor field is then projected onto points embedded in the halfspace representing the faults, and the fault normal and shear stresses at each point are calculated.

Our primary focus has been on the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, as this event occurred at the base of one of Earth's highest and steepest topographic fronts and had a complex and well-studied coseismic slip distribution, making it an ideal case study to evaluate topographic influence on faulting. We calculate the topographic stresses on the Beichuan and Pengguan faults, and compare the results to the coseismic slip distribution, considering several published fault models. These models differ primarily in slip magnitude and planar vs. listric fault geometry at depth. Preliminary results indicate that topographic stresses are generally resistive to tectonic deformation, especially above ~10 km depth, where the faults are steep in all models. Down-dip topographic shear stresses on the fault are normal sense where the faults dip steeply, and reach 20 MPa on the fault beneath the Pengguan massif. Reverse-sense shear up to ~15 MPa is present on gently-dipping thrust flats at depth on listric fault models. Strike-slip shear stresses are sinistral on the steep, upper portions of faults but may be dextral on thrust flats. Topographic normal stress on the faults reaches ~80 MPa on thrust ramps and may be higher on flats. Coseismic slip magnitude is negatively correlated with topographic normal and down-dip shear stresses. The spatial patterns of topographic stresses and slip suggest that topographic stresses have significantly suppressed slip in certain areas: slip maxima occur in areas of locally lower topographic stresses, while areas of higher down-dip shear and normal stress show less slip than adjacent regions.