Evidence of surface rupture has been found in trenches near Caiyuan and Shaomayin along the Haiyuan fault, where a great earthquake occurred in 1920. In addition to the 1920 earthquake, faulting occurred at least once between 2590 ± 190 years and 1525 ± 170 years B.P. in Caiyuan, and there probably was another event since 1525 ± 170 years B.P. The formation and later tilting of fault-related, scarp-derived colluvial wedges in the Shaomayin trench appear to record the occurrence of two pre-1920 events in the last 2200–3700 years, but there could have been three or more events. The average recurrence interval for great earthquakes along the Haiyuan fault probably exceeds 700 years, for the 1920 Haiyuan earthquake is the only major event to have been reported in this area in as many years of recorded history. Using a Holocene slip rate along this fault of 8 ± 2 mm/yr, and 8 m as the average amount of offset associated with past great events that have been determined by our previous studies, the resultant earthquake recurrence intervals would be from 800 to 1400 years. The results from our trenches and the historic record are consistent with this range.

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