"These are new observations. Unraveling exactly what's going on here could have serious implications for a lot of really important technical things," Marone said. Models based on the results could impact any place where water flows underground, such as in faults or aquifers or wells, he said. (7 Ways the Earth Changes in the Blink of an Eye)
Rapid response drilling
The Wenchuan project team tracked the healing process through a series of deep boreholes drilled through the fault. The study is part of an ongoing global effort to examine faults immediately after earthquakes, in hopes of checking the results of decades of laboratory experiments and computer modeling.
"We already know there are a lot of reasons real faults may not behave the way we think they do," said Emily Brodsky, a study co-author and geophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "If we're going to gain some actual new insights or go well beyond where our imaginations went before, we need the real deal," she said.
The Chinese-sponsored Wenchuan earthquake Fault Scientific Drilling project began 178 days after the May 12, 2008, earthquake. The massive temblor killed more than 80,000 people. Five boreholes pierced through the messy fault zone, finding 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) of fresh fault gouge, a type of pulverized rock.