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The weight of cities: Urbanization effects on Earth’s subsurface

January 14, 2021

Across the world, people increasingly choose to live in cities. By 2050, 70% of Earth's population will live in large urban areas. Upon considering a large city, questions arise such as, how much does that weigh? What are its effects on the landscape? Does it cause measurable subsidence? Here I calculate the weight of San Francisco Bay region urbanization, where 7.75 million people live at, or near the coast. It is difficult to account for everything that is in a city. I assume that most of the weight is buildings and their contents, which allows the use of base outline and height data to approximate their mass, which is cumulatively 1.6·1012 kg. I build a series of finite element models to study effects of pressure exerted by the weight distribution. Within the elastic realm, I look at compression, flexure, isostatic compensation, stress change, dilatation, and fluid flow changes. Within the nonlinear realm I show example calculations of primary and secondary settlement of soils under load. The combined modeled subsidence from building loads is at least 5–80 mm, with the largest contributions coming from nonlinear settlement and creep in soils. A general result is closing of pore space and redirection of pore fluids. While the calculated subsidence of the Bay Area is relatively small compared with other sources of elevation change such as pumping and recharge of aquifers, all sources of subsidence are concerning given an expected 200–300 mm sea level rise at San Francisco by the year 2050.

Publication Year 2021
Title The weight of cities: Urbanization effects on Earth’s subsurface
DOI 10.1029/2020AV000277
Authors Thomas E. Parsons
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title AGU Advances
Index ID 70218755
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center