Was the Sichuan Earthquake Caused by Man?

The New York Times thinks maybe: (h/t James Fallows)

Nearly nine months after a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, China, left 80,000 people dead or missing, a growing number of American and Chinese scientists are suggesting that the calamity was triggered by a four-year-old reservoir built close to the earthquake’s geological fault line.

A Columbia University scientist who studied the quake has said that it may have been triggered by the weight of 320 million tons of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir less than a mile from a well-known major fault. His conclusions, presented to the American Geophysical Union in December, coincide with a new finding by Chinese geophysicists that the dam caused significant seismic changes before the earthquake.

Scientists emphasize that the link between the dam and the failure of the fault has not been conclusively proved, and that even if the dam acted as a trigger, it would only have hastened a quake that would have occurred at some point.

How has the Chinese media responded to this? James Fallows wanted to know, so Mutant Palm answered. You can go to that site for a full translation of the article, but frankly the title sums it up pretty well: “Foreign Media Stir Up Trouble, Speculate ‘Sichuan Earthquake was Man-Made’.”

Things really get interesting in the comments, though. A commenter called “eswn” (I think we can assume this is Roland Soong of EastSouthWestNorth) posted this link (in Chinese), which apparently brings to light some misrepresentation of data intended to make it look like the reservoir had more influence than it did. Commenter DJ posted this link from the same site. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to access either of them at the moment (have they been harmonized?), but if access becomes available I will check them out and report back.

Interestingly, DJ also pointed out that this isn’t exactly a new theory, linking to this article about it that was published a mere ten days after the earthquake. Sorry New York Times, I think you got scooped on this one.

The original Chinese article about the theory appears to be fairly straightforward, noting that authorities denied any connection but that some geologists felt the possibility should not be overlooked. It then reprints information from interview with Fan Xiao, a chief engineer for the geological investigative team. Fan Xiao is also the person the “eswn” commenter accused of misrepresenting data, and according to the article, he had written articles opposing the opening of the Zipingpu Reservoir. In the interview, he said:

Fan Xiao: I didn’t just oppose the construction of the Zipingpu Reservoir. On the main stream of the Min River there are ten major reservoirs, if you count the major tributaries then there are 29, if you count the minor streams then there are even more. These reservoirs are, step by step, obstructing the entire river. This leaves no room for [the river to] open up; there are many problems with the model. We do geology and the environment; in this kind of model the geological hazard is quite large.

Reporter: And why is that?

Fan Xiao: This area is also a fault line. This time there was an 8.0 level earthquake, actually in the past there have been many earthquakes here, it’s just that the level was not so high. Especially Wenchuan, in that are earthquakes around 7.0 are quite common.

Interestingly, according to Fan Xiao (who, at the time of the writing of that article, was not willing to draw any formal conclusions but said he was very worried the quake had been caused by the reservoir), “there are many examples of reservoirs causing earthquakes, on the basis of analyzing the situation, the Zipingpu Reservoir has all the conditions needed to cause an earthquake […] but whether it could cause an earthquake at as high a level as 8.0, we still need to leave a question mark after that, there needs to be lots of data to explain it.”

So who is telling the truth? It’s not entirely clear. A quick web search seems to indicate that generally speaking, many people believe it is possible for earthquakes to be caused by reservoirs, but I’m no geologist. Perhaps some astute commenters (or some commenters with uncensored internet access) can help us out…

UPDATE: For an extremely thorough treatment of the subject including a variety of Western and Chinese articles as well as statistical analysis that puts this site to shame, check EastSouthWestNorth. The Fan Xiao information and translation of Chinese articles are near the bottom.

Also Interesting: Evan Osnos of the New Yorker: “His [Fan Xiao’s] findings and related conclusions by Columbia University scientists are not definitive, but, as they circulate in the West, they remain, so far, absent from the Chinese press, as far as I have seen.” Evan: See links above.

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0 thoughts on “Was the Sichuan Earthquake Caused by Man?”

  1. XYS has long been blocked, but they have a wide array of mirrors. Check this one out.

    Take anything you read on XYS with a grain of salt, however: their contributors often do know what they’re talking about, but the general tone of the site lends itself to arguments that seek to *win* by smack-down rather than tease out the subtleties of divergent opinions, which means you’ll often find straw-men, out-of-context quotes, and a tendency to focus on minor errors while leaving larger questions untouched. There’s good information there, but it often has to be synthesized by the reader from multiple sources.

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  2. Whether or not a dam enhanced the earthquake is a matter for Geologists to discuss and probably there will never be a definite answer.

    More disturbng for Non-goelogist is the fact that the argument isn’t really being held inside China – at least not inthe open, and not enough data is being collected.
    Some very considerable economic interest are involved here – especially those of power companies who’d go to a very great length to prevent real discussion of dam building practices here. very troubeling consider the number of dams in China and the ways in which they’re being construct. To dismiss the whole thing as some western media concpiracy is really not doing the discussion any good.

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  3. @ ESWN and zhwj: thanks!

    @ Rachel: From the evidence presented here, it seems like the issue has been discussed within China. Like I said in the post, there was an article about it in the Chinese press ten days after the earthquake. And I’m not sure anyone here is arguing it be dismissed as a ‘western media conspiracy’…

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