5 years after the Wenchuan earthquake

Beichuan County, located in a mountainous region of Sichuan Province, China, was severely damaged during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Survivors of the quake have been relocated and the county town now serves as a memorial to the natural disaster. (Image credited to: AlamyCelebrity / Alamy)

The Wenchuan earthquake that occurred in southwest China on 12 May 2008 killed more than 80,000 people and displaced millions. Five years on, many of the affected communities have made a good recovery – at least until the most recent quake in April 2013 wreaked further havoc in the region. The devastating 2008 event has helped invigorate research into earthquake hazards. A collection of opinion pieces, published in Nature Geoscience to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2008 event, discusses the mechanisms for the Wenchuan quake itself and the implications for our understanding of the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau, the ongoing risk from quake-induced landslides, and the societal impacts of the earthquake.

We are grateful for the financial support of our sponsor, the Department of Earth Sciences, National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), which has enabled us to provide access to the following NEW and ARCHIVE content FREE online to registered users from 29 April 2013 until 31 October 2013. As always, Nature Publishing Group carries sole responsibility for all editorial content.



Resilience from ruin p321


Five years ago, China was struck by the devastating Wenchuan earthquake. From the destruction comes new understanding.



Beware of slowly slipping faults p323-324

Pei-Zhen Zhang


The fault zone that hosted the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 had been assigned a moderate-to-low seismic hazard rating, because it slips slowly. In hindsight, it seems that this type of fault is not necessarily innocuous.

The landslide story pp325-326

Runqiu Huang & Xuanmei Fan


The catastrophic Wenchuan earthquake induced an unprecedented number of geohazards. Heightened landslide frequency after a quake, with potential secondary effects such as river damming and subsequent floods, need more focussed attention.

Bottom-up disaster resilience pp327-328

Emily Y. Y. Chan


The 2008 Wenchuan earthquake highlights some of the successes of government-led schemes to mitigate the impact of natural disasters. A stronger focus on individuals and local communities could reduce losses even further in the future.


From the archives



Topography reveals seismic hazard

Eric Kirby, Kelin Whipple & Nathan Harkins


The devastating earthquake in the Chinese province of Sichuan struck an area that was not expected to suffer seismic activity of such magnitude. Yet topographic analyses of the region indicate active deformation, suggesting a way of refining maps of earthquake risk elsewhere.


News & Views

Tectonics: Reanimating eastern Tibet

Michael E. Oskin


The high eastern Tibetan Plateau was thought to have formed from an inflow of material from the lower crust. The cooling histories of rocks exposed at the plateau margin, however, reveal protracted, episodic growth, suggesting that faulting also played a role.



Crustal deformation of the eastern Tibetan plateau revealed by magnetotelluric imaging

Denghai Bai, Martyn J. Unsworth, Max A. Meju, Xiaobing Ma, Jiwen Teng, Xiangru Kong, Yi Sun, Jie Sun, Lifeng Wang, Chaosong Jiang, Ciping Zhao, Pengfei Xiao & Mei Liu


Deformation of the Himalaya and Tibet is thought to relate to flow within a weak crustal channel at depth. Magnetotelluric imaging of the Earth's subsurface reveals a complex pattern of deformation, with two distinct weak crustal channels at 20–40km depth.

Mass wasting triggered by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake is greater than orogenic growth

Robert N. Parker, Alexander L. Densmore, Nicholas J. Rosser, Marcello de Michele, Yong Li, Runqiu Huang, Siobhan Whadcoat & David N. Petley


Shallow earthquakes lead to the uplift of mountain ranges, but also trigger landslides that remove mass. An analysis of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake suggests that more material was removed from the orogen by widespread landslides than was added by coseismic uplift.

Two-phase growth of high topography in eastern Tibet during the Cenozoic

E. Wang, E. Kirby, K. P. Furlong, M. van Soest, G. Xu, X. Shi, P. J. J. Kamp & K. V. Hodges


High topography in eastern Tibet is thought to have formed in response to weak lower crust flowing towards the plateau margin. Thermochronologic analyses of rocks exposed at the eastern plateau margin record periods of mountain growth early in the Indo-Asian collision, implying that crustal flow alone could not have created the high topography.

Stress changes from the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and increased hazard in the Sichuan basin

Tom Parsons, Chen Ji & Eric Kirby


Uplift of the Longmen Shan and Tibetan plateau, and the 2008 Wenchuan (M = 7.9) earthquake

Judith Hubbard & John H. Shaw




Slip maxima at fault junctions and rupturing of barriers during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake

Zheng-Kang Shen, Jianbao Sun, Peizhen Zhang, Yongge Wan, Min Wang, Roland Bürgmann, Yuehua Zeng, Weijun Gan, Hua Liao & Qingliang Wang


The devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 struck along a fault zone that showed low rates of deformation. Analysis of GPS and InSAR data suggests that, as structural barriers failed during a single earthquake, the rupture cascaded across multiple fault segments, which may explain the high magnitude of the event.

Rupture of deep faults in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and uplift of the Longmen Shan

Wang Qi, Qiao Xuejun, Lan Qigui, Jeffrey Freymueller, Yang Shaomin, Xu Caijun, Yang Yonglin, You Xinzhao, Tan Kai & Chen Gang


The Longmen Shan Mountains rise up 6,000m over a distance of just 100km, but the mechanisms driving formation of this striking topography are debated. Analyses of crustal movements during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake suggest that fault-induced uplift plays a role in building the high topography.


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