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Information Note 05/2007 May 2007


Key Messages: a) The seismicity of Hong Kong is low to moderate.

b) There is little evidence of significant recent fault activity in Hong

Kong, either onshore or offshore.

c) The possibility of significant earthquake damage to slopes,

retaining walls and reclamations in Hong Kong is low.


Every year, about two earth tremors are felt in Hong Kong. To put this in
context, studies into earthquake risk in Hong Kong carried out by the Geotechnical
Engineering Office (GEO) classified the seismicity of Hong Kong and the adjoining
Guangdong Province as "low to moderate". The earthquake hazard in Hong Kong is
therefore considered to be very much lower than in areas such as Japan, Taiwan and the
western USA which lie close to the earth's more seismically active zones along crustal plate
boundaries. However, earthquake risk in Hong Kong cannot be regarded as negligible.

Causes of Earthquakes

An earthquake is a complex series of ground vibrations caused by the release

of stored energy in the ground, usually during a sudden, unpredictable movement along a
geological fault. Movements are ordinarily resisted by friction and only occur when the
stress across a fault has built up to a level at which it exceeds the frictional resistance. Other
natural processes such as the movement of magma beneath volcanoes or magmatic
movements beneath the earth’s crust can generate earthquakes. Earthquakes can also result
from the activity of man, most obviously in relation to controlled or accidental large
explosions, and to man-made changes such as the filling of newly constructed large reservoirs.

Quantification of Earthquakes: Size and Effects

Earthquakes are generally assessed in terms of their magnitude and intensity.

(a) The magnitude of an earthquake is a measure of the amount of energy released at the
origin of the earthquake, and it is most commonly quantified in terms of the Richter
Scale. Earthquakes of magnitude less than 4 are considered minor and unlikely to
cause damage, whereas those with magnitude 6 or greater are considered major events,
capable of causing great damage in some cases. As magnitude increases by one unit,
the energy released increases by about 30 times.

(b) The intensity of an earthquake is an assessment of its surface effects, and in Hong
Kong this is quantified by using the twelve-point Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.
Stationary people can feel an intensity III tremor; for intensity VI, many people are

frightened and run outdoors; some buildings suffer from cracking under an intensity
VII event; tremors causing landslides are classed as intensity VIII; intensities of IX and
above are significantly destructive events. Unlike the magnitude of an earthquake,
which quantifies the energy released at the source within the earth, intensity reduces as
the surface distance from the source of the earthquake increases. Hence, maps of
intensity distribution related to a specific earthquake will generally show crude
concentric zoning around the source of the earthquake.

Global Distribution and Generation of Earthquakes

The point on the earth's surface vertically above the source of an earthquake is its
epicentre. The actual location of fault movements which generate most earthquakes felt at
the earth's surface, however, is at variable depths of up to several hundred kilometres. Most
major earthquakes occur in well established seismic zones which also contain very large fault
systems. Most, but not all, of these zones are situated along the boundaries of the earth's
crustal plates. The relative movement of the plates ultimately determines the frequency and
magnitude of earthquakes occurring along individual faults. Although far fewer earthquakes
occur along faults located far from plate boundaries, they can nevertheless still be of large

The Tectonic Setting of Hong Kong

Hong Kong lies within the Eurasian Plate. It is located about 600 km from the
nearest boundary which underlies Taiwan and trends south to the Philippines and northeast to
Japan. This plate boundary is associated with both frequent and large magnitude earthquakes
whose epicentres are concentrated in a zone up to 200 km wide along the eastern boundary of
the Eurasian Plate. Active volcanoes also occur in this zone, as in Japan and the Philippines.
Historical data indicate that the frequency of large magnitude earthquakes declines rapidly at
distances greater than about 200 km from the plate boundary.

Historic Earthquakes in the Vicinity of Hong Kong

Historical records indicate that Hong Kong does not experience frequent, large
magnitude earthquakes, as a result of its favourable location far removed from plate
boundaries (see below). However, occasional earthquakes are recorded at locations almost
throughout the Eurasian Plate.

The biggest earthquake vibrations recorded in the last 100 years or so in the
vicinity of Hong Kong occurred 300 km away in the Shantou area of neighbouring
Guangdong Province in 1918. This earthquake was classed as Magnitude 7.3, but in spite of
its classified VI to VII intensity in Hong Kong, the damage caused was minor. Other notable
earthquakes have occurred near Hong Kong at Macau in 1905 (Magnitude 5.5), at Heyuan in
1962 (Magnitude 5.8), and at Yangjiang in 1969 (Magnitude 6.2). No damage was reported
in Hong Kong due to these earthquakes.

Every year, about two earth tremors are felt in Hong Kong. Most of these
tremors are small and about 25% of them are due to earthquakes with epicentres near or at

Taiwan, for example, the Magnitude 7.7 earthquake at Taiwan in September 1999. The
intensity of this earthquake measured in Hong Kong was classed IV. Bigger tremors are
occasionally experienced when earthquake epicentres are nearer to Hong Kong; for example,
the Magnitude 7.3 earthquake which occurred on 16 September 1994 and aroused some public
concern in Hong Kong. The epicentre of this earthquake was located offshore near Shantou
and its intensity in Hong Kong was classed as V to VI. An earthquake of magnitude 3.5
around Dangan Island in 2006 also aroused some public concern. Information on locally felt
earth tremors can be found in the Hong Kong Observatory’s website:

To put the local earthquake risk in its context, it should be noted that small
earthquakes are commonplace throughout the world, but the vast majority are of magnitudes
so small that they are only detectable by very sensitive equipment, and their intensities are
below the threshold felt by people. Of most concern to the public are the strong earthquakes
that can cause damage to property and injury to people. Although the earthquake hazard in
Hong Kong is considered to be very much less than in areas such as Japan, Taiwan and the
western USA which are located along highly active plate boundaries, this does not mean that
the risk is negligible. Earthquakes can occur at locations far from plate boundaries.

Research and Development

The GEO have been carrying out earthquake studies since 1988 and the study results
are published locally. Researchers in local universities and practitioners have also carried
out studies related to earthquake engineering. The results of these studies enable engineers
in Hong Kong to make better provisions for earthquakes in their design. A summary of the
recent earthquake studies in Hong Kong is given in Appendix A.

Earthquake Provisions in Hong Kong

The Buildings Department conducted a review on the seismic effects on

buildings in Hong Kong. The GEO has published a guidance document on the design of
retaining walls (GEO, 1993) which provides for earthquake loading. For man-made slopes,
earthquake provision in the design is not considered necessary as severe rainfall is a more
severe design condition. The current design practice for buildings in Hong Kong is such that
provision for earthquake loading is not made routinely. Nevertheless, some large buildings
and civil engineering projects have been designed against earthquakes, at the discretion of the
owners. For example, the dam of the Plover Cove Reservoir has been designed to withstand
earthquakes up to Intensity VIII.

Prepared by Standards and Testing Division

Geotechnical Engineering Office
Civil Engineering and Development Department
May 2007

Appendix A

Earthquake Studies in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, earthquake studies have in the past concentrated on data from
two main sources:

(a) Collecting historic records from Hong Kong and the neighbouring region - The GEO,
in collaboration with the Observatory and seismologists in the United Kingdom and
Guangdong Province, have reviewed information on earthquakes within a distance of
about 350 km of Hong Kong. The information has been published in GCO
Publication No.1/91 (GCO, 1991). This review revealed that, although earthquakes
have occurred in Guangdong Province, seismicity in the region is "low to moderate"
and is lower in Hong Kong than elsewhere in the region.

(b) Geological mapping by the Hong Kong Geological Survey includes locating faults and
shear zones, and examining them for evidence of recent activity - onland faults have
been recorded during detailed field geological surveying. Offshore faults have been
located mainly using seismic and magnetic reflection surveys. There is little
evidence to suggest significant recent activity on the faults which have been mapped
either onshore or offshore.

In parallel with the general review of seismicity and geological structure, a

number of specific studies on the effects of earthquakes on different types of engineering
structures in Hong Kong have been completed:

(a) In 1994, the Government upgraded the local seismic monitoring network that is
maintained and operated by the Hong Kong Observatory, and additional seismological
stations have been established. It is now possible to record even very small-scale
earthquakes in the vicinity of Hong Kong and locate the earthquake sources more

(b) The GEO have looked at the effects of seismic loading on slopes, retaining walls and
reclamations. Regarding slopes and retaining walls, there are no records of
earthquake-induced landslides or wall collapses in Hong Kong. GEO's studies also
indicate that seismic loading is generally not critical for man-made slopes and walls
designed to current geotechnical safety standards. Similar findings for slopes were
reported by Pappin & Bowden (1997). As for reclamations, the probability of
earthquake-induced liquefaction has been shown to be low in Hong Kong. Sites with
a long fundamental period (i.e. low natural frequency) have not been found.

(c) The GEO engaged the University of Hong Kong to carry out a detailed study of the
seismic hazard in Hong Kong in 1995. The University collaborated with
seismologists from Guangdong and took into account the wealth of information
gathered by Mainland seismologists in recent years. The results of the study (Lee et
al, 1996) are consistent with those from earlier studies in the early 1990s. The return
period for a major earthquake of Intensity VII to occur in Hong Kong is estimated to
be 350 to 400 years, and Intensity VIII could be once in 2,500 years.

(d) Although there are no known cases of landslides caused by earthquakes in Hong Kong,

the GEO has carried out a study to compare the risk of failure of man-made slopes
induced by earthquakes to those induced by rainfall (Wong & Ho, 2000). The results
of the study show that the risk of failure of man-made slopes due to earthquakes is
much smaller than that due to heavy rainfall.

(e) Research is currently continuing at local universities on a range of topics related to

earthquake engineering, e.g. Chandler (2000), Chandler & Su (2000) and Chau et al


Chandler, A.M. (2000). Review of Hong Kong seismic parameters and determination of
design level earthquake events. Transactions, vol. 7, no. 1. Hong Kong Institution
of Engineers, pp 1-12.

Chandler, A.M. & Su, R.K.L. (2000). Dynamic soil properties of Hong Kong reclamation
sites for seismic applications. Transactions, vol. 7, no. 1. Hong Kong Institution of
Engineers, pp 13-27.

Chau, K.T., Lam, E.S.S., Xu, Y.L. & Wong, Y.L. (2002). Research and development of the
earthquake engineering in Hong Kong. Proceedings of the One Day Seminar on
Recent Developments in Earthquake Engineering. Hong Kong Institution of Engineers,
Hong Kong, pp 16-33.

GCO (1991). Review of Earthquake Data for the Hong Kong Region (GCO Publication No.
1/91). Geotechnical Control Office, 115 p.

GEO (1993). Guide to Retaining Wall Design (Geoguide 1). (Second edition).
Geotechnical Engineering Office, 268 p.

Lee, C.F., Ding, Y.Z., Huang, R.H., Yu, Y.B., Guo, G.A., Chen, P.L. & Huang, X.H. (1996).
Seismic Hazard Analysis of the Hong Kong Region (GEO Report No. 56).
Geotechnical Engineering Office, 145 p.

Pappin, J.W. & Bowden, A.J.H. (1997). The likelihood of earthquake induced landslides in
Hong Kong. Proceedings of the Seminar on Slope Engineering in Hong Kong, Annual
Seminar of the Geotechnical Division, Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, pp 177

Wong, H.N. & Ho K.K.S. (2000). Preliminary Risk Assessment of Earthquake-induced

Landslides at Man-made Slopes in Hong Kong (GEO Report No. 98). Geotechnical
Engineering Office, Hong Kong, 69 p.