Crustal structure and rheology of the Longmenshan and Wenchuan Mw 7.9 earthquake epicentral area from magnetotelluric data

Guoze Zhao*, Martyn J. Unsworth, Yan Zhan, Lifeng Wang, Xiaobin Chen, Alan G. Jones, Ji Tang, Qibin Xiao, Jijun Wang, Juntao Cai, Tao Li, Yanzhao Wang, Jihong Zhang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

170 Citations (Scopus)


The Longmenshan forms the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau adjacent to the Sichuan Basin. This range is anomalous because it formed despite low convergence and slip rates and without the development of a foreland basin. The devastating A.D. 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (Mw = 7.9) has renewed debate about the tectonics of the Longmenshan. A magnetotelluric (MT) study was undertaken subsequent to the earthquake to investigate the crustal structure of the Longmenshan, and inversion of the data reveals a low-resistivity (high-conductivity) layer at a depth of ~20 km beneath the eastern Tibetan Plateau that terminates ~25 km west of the Wenchuan-Maoxian fault. Its electrical properties are consistent with it being fl uid-rich and mechanically weak. Beneath the Longmenshan and Sichuan Basin, a high-resistivity zone extends through the entire crust, but with a zone of low resistivity in the vicinity of the Wenchuan hypocenter. We show that the MT data, combined with other geological and geophysical observations, support geodynamic models for the uplift of eastern Tibet being caused by southeast- directed crustal fl ow that is blocked by stable lithosphere beneath the Sichuan Basin and Longmenshan, leading to infl ation of the Songpan-Ganzi terrane. This rigid high-resistivity backstop not only provided a block to fl ow, but also may have accumulated stress prior to the earthquake. The MT observations provide new insights into the generation of the Wenchuan earthquake, which occurred in a region with low convergence rates prior to the earthquake.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1139-1142
Number of pages4
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes


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