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Radar Interferometry Measurement of Land Subsidence in Houston, Texas

Area Description

Houston urban development began along Buffalo Bayou, generally along present-day central and east Houston.  After discovery of vast oil reserves in the early 1900s, the Channel became the location of many petrochemical refineries.  Significant industrial development occurred during World War II, when Houston industry became a major manufacturer of war supplies.  The influx of war-time workers, the development of an expressway system during the 1950s and an unprecedented lack of city zoning laws quickly led to urban sprawl.  Most recent Houston urban development has been to the north and west.

Houston map

Groundwater pumping for residential and agricultural use began shortly after the discovery of a vast aquifer system in the late 1880s.  Industrial groundwater usage began with the opening of the Ship Channel and increased dramatically during WW II.  Not until the formation of the Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District in 1975 did surface water replace groundwater usage in parts of Houston.

Maximum subsidence has occurred in the east Houston suburb of Pasadena, where more than 3 meters of subsidence has been observed along Buffalo Bayou.  In addition, differential subsidence along Houston-area growth faults has caused extensive damage to thousands of man-made structures.

Houston growth fault damage (photo by S. Duncan Heron, Jr. - heron@eos.duke.edu)

Since switching to surface water in the late 1970s, east Houston has seen dramatic decreases in overall subsidence rates.  Indeed, extensometer data indicates 3 cm of rebound over the past decade in the Pasadena area as water levels have recovered.  However, dramatic urban development and continued groundwater usage has resulted in increased subsidence rates in north and west Houston.

 SAR Data