Letter | Published:

Uplift and seismicity driven by groundwater depletion in central California

Nature volume 509, pages 483486 (22 May 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Groundwater use in California’s San Joaquin Valley exceeds replenishment of the aquifer, leading to substantial diminution of this resource1,2,3,4 and rapid subsidence of the valley floor5. The volume of groundwater lost over the past century and a half also represents a substantial reduction in mass and a large-scale unburdening of the lithosphere, with significant but unexplored potential impacts on crustal deformation and seismicity. Here we use vertical global positioning system measurements to show that a broad zone of rock uplift of up to 1–3 mm per year surrounds the southern San Joaquin Valley. The observed uplift matches well with predicted flexure from a simple elastic model of current rates of water-storage loss, most of which is caused by groundwater depletion3. The height of the adjacent central Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada is strongly seasonal and peaks during the dry late summer and autumn, out of phase with uplift of the valley floor during wetter months. Our results suggest that long-term and late-summer flexural uplift of the Coast Ranges reduce the effective normal stress resolved on the San Andreas Fault. This process brings the fault closer to failure, thereby providing a viable mechanism for observed seasonality in microseismicity at Parkfield6 and potentially affecting long-term seismicity rates for fault systems adjacent to the valley. We also infer that the observed contemporary uplift of the southern Sierra Nevada previously attributed to tectonic or mantle-derived forces7,8,9,10 is partly a consequence of human-caused groundwater depletion.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for this work comes from NSF EarthScope award number EAR-1252210 to G.B. and W.C.H. GPS data were collected using the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory, SCIGN, BARGEN, BARD, CORS and IGS networks. We are particularly grateful to UNAVCO for operating the vast majority of GPS stations used in this project. GPS data were processed using the GIPSY OASIS II software and data products from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Affiliations

  1. Geology Department, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington 98225-9080, USA

    • Colin B. Amos
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Pascal Audet
  3. Nevada Geodetic Laboratory, Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology and Nevada Seismological Laboratory, University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada 89557, USA

    • William C. Hammond
    •  & Geoffrey Blewitt
  4. Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720-4760, USA

    • Roland Bürgmann
    •  & Ingrid A. Johanson
  5. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, Berkeley, California 97720-4767, USA

    • Roland Bürgmann

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Contributions

C.B.A. and P.A. performed the analysis and wrote the paper. W.C.H. and G.B. analysed and processed the GPS data. All authors contributed to the interpretations and preparation of the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Colin B. Amos.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13275

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