It's one of the world's most important, vibrant cities and home to 20 million people, but Beijing is literally collapsing under the weight of its own economic success.

Research has revealed that parts of the city are sinking at an alarming rate - by as much as 11cm per year - because of the overconsumption of groundwater.

The findings, published this month in the journal Remote Sensing, reveal the rate of sinking threatens "the safety of the public and urban infrastructure".

Uneven sinking prove catastrophic for the city's train network, buildings and other major structures, the study found.

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State authorities in Beijing are doing their best to slow down the rate at which the city is sinking. Photo / Getty Images
State authorities in Beijing are doing their best to slow down the rate at which the city is sinking. Photo / Getty Images

Specialists from China, Spain and Germany worked with the National Natural Science Foundation of China to analyse data from thousands of satellite images and global positioning sensors, tracking changes in the ground level from 2003 to 2011.

They found that the city's Chaoyang district in the business heart of Beijing, is the worst affected, sinking at an annual rate of 11cm. Other districts slowly being swallowed up by the earth include Changping, Shunyi and Tongzhou.

Researchers also estimated that some areas sank more than 75cm during the study period.

The same group of scientists will release an analysis of sinking on high-speed railways and other critical infrastructure later this year.

Skaters exercise and play ice hockey on a frozen canal in Beijing. Photo / Getty Images
Skaters exercise and play ice hockey on a frozen canal in Beijing. Photo / Getty Images
Chinese workers inspect a sinkhole that appeared in a Beijing street on February 8, 2010. Photo / AFP
Chinese workers inspect a sinkhole that appeared in a Beijing street on February 8, 2010. Photo / AFP

When the rock dissolves, it leaves an underground cavity. A sinkhole is created when there is no longer enough rock left to hold up the land surface. It can also occur in areas that have been heavily mined or on reclaimed land.

China also has a huge sinkhole problem but affected areas tend to be more localised (see the photograph below) and occur more frequently in regions that have been mined too heavily.

Beijing is not the only city plagued by subsidence, with Mexico City, Jakarta and Bangkok also experiencing that sinking feeling.