Letter | Published:

Uplift and seismicity driven by groundwater depletion in central California

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


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    , & Ground-water flow in the Central Valley, California. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 1401-D. (1989)

  2. 2.

    (ed.) Groundwater availability of the Central Valley aquifer, California. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 1766. (2009)

  3. 3.

    et al. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California's Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L03403 (2011)

  4. 4.

    et al. Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 9320–9325 (2012)

  5. 5.

    , , & Land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley, California, as of 1972. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap. 437-H. (1975)

  6. 6.

    , & Annual modulation of seismicity along the San Andreas Fault near Parkfield, CA. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L04306 (2007)

  7. 7.

    , & Contemporary vertical velocity of the central Basin and Range and uplift of the southern Sierra Nevada. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L20309 (2008)

  8. 8.

    , , , & Increasing long-wavelength relief across the southeastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, California. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 287, 255–264 (2009)

  9. 9.

    , , , & Contemporary uplift of the Sierra Nevada, western United States, from GPS and InSAR measurements. Geology 40, 667–670 (2012)

  10. 10.

    , & Epeirogenic transients related to mantle lithosphere removal in the southern Sierra Nevada region, California: Part II. Implications of rock uplift and basin subsidence relations. Geosphere 9, 394–425 (2013)

  11. 11.

    Elastic expansion of the lithosphere caused by groundwater depletion. J. Geophys. Res. 84, 4689–4698 (1979)

  12. 12.

    et al. Crustal displacements due to continental water loading. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 651–654 (2001)

  13. 13.

    , & Accelerating uplift in the North Atlantic region as an indicator of ice loss. Nature Geosci. 3, 404–407 (2010)

  14. 14.

    et al. Rising of the lowest place on Earth due to Dead Sea water-level drop: evidence from SAR interferometry and GPS. J. Geophys. Res. 117, B05412 (2012)

  15. 15.

    & Seasonal and long-term vertical deformation in the Nepal Himalaya constrained by GPS and GRACE measurements. J. Geophys. Res. 117, B03407 (2012)

  16. 16.

    Snow load and seasonal variation of earthquake occurrence in Japan. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 207, 159–164 (2003)

  17. 17.

    , , , & Modulation of the earthquake cycle at the southern San Andreas fault by lake loading. J. Geophys. Res. 112, B08411 (2007)

  18. 18.

    et al. Seasonal variations of seismicity and geodetic strain in the Himalaya induced by surface hydrology. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 266, 332–344 (2008)

  19. 19.

    , , , & The 2011 Lorca earthquake slip distribution controlled by groundwater crustal unloading. Nature Geosci. 5, 821–825 (2012)

  20. 20.

    & Seasonal thermoelastic strain and postseismic effects in Parkfield borehole dilatometers. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 379, 120–126 (2013)

  21. 21.

    Late Cenozoic crustal movements in the Sierra Nevada of California. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 77, 163–182 (1966)

  22. 22.

    & Geomorphically driven late Cenozoic rock uplift in the Sierra Nevada, California. Science 270, 277–281 (1995)

  23. 23.

    & Lithospheric convective instability could induce creep along part of the San Andreas fault. Geology 41, 999–1002 (2013)

  24. 24.

    , , & Terrestrial reference frame NA12 for crustal deformation studies in North America. J. Geodyn. 72, 11–24 (2013)

  25. 25.

    , & ITRF2008: an improved solution of the international terrestrial reference frame. J. Geod. 85, 457–473 (2011)

  26. 26.

    & Time-dependent land uplift and subsidence in the Santa Clara valley, California, from a large interferometric synthetic aperture radar data set. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 2416 (2003)

  27. 27.

    , & Seasonal variation in total water storage in California inferred from GPS observations of vertical land motion. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 1971–1980 (2014)

  28. 28.

    & Large-scale atmospheric forcing of recent trends toward early snowmelt runoff in California. J. Clim. 8, 606–623 (1995)

  29. 29.

    California Department of Water Resources. California water plan update 2005. Volume 1: Strategic Plan. Dep. Water Res. Bull. 160–05. (2005)

  30. 30.

    , & Fundamentals of Rock Mechanics 4th edn (Blackwell, 2007)

  31. 31.

    , , , & Precise point positioning for the efficient and robust analysis of GPS data from large networks. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 5005–5017 (1997)

  32. 32.

    , , & Global mapping function (GMF): a new empirical mapping function based on numerical weather model data. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L07304 (2006)

  33. 33.

    , & Estimating horizontal gradients of tropospheric path delay with a single GPS receiver. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 5019–5035 (1998)

  34. 34.

    A parametrized solid earth tide model and ocean tide loading effects for global geodetic baseline measurements. Geophys. J. Int. 106, 677–694 (1991)

  35. 35.

    Carrier phase ambiguity resolution for the Global Positioning System applied to geodetic baselines up to 2000 km. J. Geophys. Res. 94, 10187–10283 (1989)

  36. 36.

    et al. Single receiver phase ambiguity resolution with GPS data. J. Geod. 84, 327–337 (2010)

  37. 37.

    , & ITRF2008: an improved solution of the international terrestrial reference frame. J. Geodesy 85, 457–473 (2011)

  38. 38.

    et al. IGS08: The IGS realization of ITRF2008. GPS Solut. 16, 483–494 (2012)

  39. 39.

    Stress triggers, stress shadows, and implications for seismic hazard. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 24347–24358 (1998)

  40. 40.

    & Seismicity and geometry of a 110-km long blind thrust fault. 2. Synthesis of the 1982-1985 California earthquake sequence. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 4865–4883 (1992)

  41. 41.

    & Response of the San Andreas fault to the 1983 Coalinga-Nuñez earthquakes: an application of interaction-based probabilities. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 2126 (2002)

Download references


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.

Author information


  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


  1. Search for Colin B. Amos in:

  2. Search for Pascal Audet in:

  3. Search for William C. Hammond in:

  4. Search for Roland Bürgmann in:

  5. Search for Ingrid A. Johanson in:

  6. Search for Geoffrey Blewitt in:


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.

Extended data

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.