Could the Three Gorges Dam Lead to Earthquakes?

Recently, Zhao Shilong posted a long, thoroughly-researched piece on the potential of the Three Gorges Dam to cause earthquakes. It’s a bit long and technical for me to translate, so here’s a summary. (Do bear in mind that my Chinese is far from perfect and my knowledge of geology is extremely limited, so it’s very possible I’ve misunderstood bits of it.)

Zhao’s concern is that the water level has been raised this year to 175 meters, an increase from last year’s 173 meter level. 175 is about as high as the water can go, and it’s a small increase, but Zhao contends that the pressure caused by the water at a 173 meter depth is responsible for a number of natural gas explosions. These explosions — really they are underground reserves of natural gas being forced out of their previous locations due to the increased pressure from the dammed water — have occurred in a variety of places (Zhao cites Chongqing and Hebei, among others) and are considered by some geologists to be a warning sign for earthquakes.

Zhao himself feels that the question of whether the Three Gorges Dam was a contributing faction in the 5.12 earthquake has “not yet been answered clearly”, and that until that question is answered, the force being exerted on the tectonic plate under Three Gorges — already a fault line and earthquake hotbed — shouldn’t be “rashly increased” via adding another couple meters of water.

Zhao closes with:

Recently, expert scholars holding the same opinion as I are urgently calling this matter to the attention of the relevant national departments as well as the scholars, keep on guard for great danger!

We’ll leave you to assess the validity of his geology — we are in no way qualified to do so — but here are some of the comments about this story left on his blog by netizens:

So it looks like the Three Gorges situation has become very serious. Keep an eye on it, may heaven protect China!

Worth keeping track of and pondering. And I express my respect to the big-brains keeping track of it and pondering it.

They really want to fill it to 175 meters? No way…

Isn’t it true that right now it’s at 172 meters, and nothing has happened yet? There’s an old expression: “groundless fears,” you fear the sky will fall and bury you, but in the end nothing happens!

Objection to the construction of our nation is necessary, we must really treat it seriously!

We also musn’t use psuedoscience to hinder the development of our nation, so that it falls into the pitfalls planned by foreigners.

We should not allow the great unpolluted power of the flowing Yangtze River to be washed away.

Choose the path that pursues profit and avoids harm.

Since the river was dammed, Fengjie has already had three earthquakes.

Fengjie has already had nine earthquakes

[Probably referring to the above commenters] There is definitely a connection!

Large dams lead to earthquakes, in geology circles this is already considered common knowledge. If you don’t want to admit it, fine, then endure it, OK?

Any geology experts out there? What do you think?

0 thoughts on “Could the Three Gorges Dam Lead to Earthquakes?”

  1. Actually, I thought the Zipingpu dam near Wenchuan is believed (by some anyway) to be the cause of the 5.12 earthquake.

    Apparently, not long after they had filled the dam to its maximum level, the earthquake occurred.

    Side note, I wonder if the commenter that mentioned the wisest path being the one that reaps profit and avoids harm has considered the ecological ramifications of damming these gorges.


  2. I really have no idea how to respond to geological arguments like this. Gas building up because of the pressure of the reservoir? Sure, that makes sense, but in the same way that any other passably “scientific” argument that comes my way makes sense. I suppose that’s the thing with the internet: it invites us to hold opinions on stuff we do not remotely have the expertise to tackle.

    Which is unnerving. But the way a public opinion wave is dealt with by the state or elites—whether that wave is growing worry about the effects of a dam or creeping doubt about the wisdom of the Iraq War or whatever—is instructive. When distress is brushed aside with a “let the experts handle this” and arguments aren’t taken on directly, then it is the public’s responsibility to start digging, because there’s a strong chance that something’s up.

    I suppose the above could apply to things like global warming or certain court decisions (like, in the States, Roe v. Wade) where I don’t think challengers have any merit. But in those cases, too, I think the “expert” view has been hurt needlessly by not engaging challengers.


  3. Damn, it seems like a post has to have some element of East-West rivalry for people to comment in any significant numbers. Dam building and Lu Xun don’t cut it, apparently.

    Maybe if you had titled the post “Why American Dams are Better than Chinese Dams” or “Why Does Everyone Unfairly Criticize Chinese Dams” we’d be getting somewhere…


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