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Scientists solve the big problem: why the San Andreas fault sleeps

Scientists solve the big problem: why the San Andreas fault sleeps


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Scientists think they may have found a reason why the San Andreas Fault, California’s greatest seismic hazard, has been dormant for more than three centuries.

The average time period between earthquakes over the past millennium has been about 180 years.

Seismologists believe the Golden State was triggered by a massive earthquake, referred to as the “Big One”—but a number of researchers published a paper in the journal Nature on Wednesday that lays out an answer for the long stretch of settlement along the south. San Andreas, where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates meet.

The paper states that while friction between plates is the main force behind earthquakes, other things are also important, such as the weight of major bodies of water. Researchers have linked large earthquakes to filling a lake as water levels rose and fell over hundreds of years.

San Diego State University and Scripps Institution of Oceanography Ph.D. candidate Riley Hill told the New York Times, “We’re not trying to predict any earthquakes that will happen in the future, but we may be able to pinpoint why we haven’t experienced one in the last 300 years.”

The paper’s authors discovered that large earthquakes along a fault typically occur when Lake Cahuilla has filled or has been filled with water from the Colorado River in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys.

Lake Cahuilla was a prehistoric lake in northern Mexico and California. It disappeared around 1580, according to the World Atlas.

What remains now is the archaeological Salton Sea after the lake was drained. The researchers believe that the lake’s eventual emptying and disappearance may have stabilized the fault.

A sign in front of the Parkfield Café provides information and directions to various places, including the nearby San Andreas Fault that runs under the small populated city of Parkfield on July 12, 2019.

(AFP via Getty Images)

Seismologist Lucy Jones, who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times that this is “a plausible reason for the current long interval since the last earthquake” but added that the paper “doesn’t make me want to say ‘don’t worry about the next one’.”

But the scientists also say that one effect of the longer period of stability is more stress build-up as the plates move away from each other.

USGS research geoscientist Bill Filipossian told the paper, “It has accumulated a large amount of energy comparable to a taut rubber band. We have to expect that the rubber band could break at any time.”

A major earthquake is defined as having a magnitude of seven or greater. In 1994, the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles killed more than 70 people and caused $20 billion in damage.

It came from one of the many flaws in the San Andreas system, but not the main one, which is the longest in the state and could lead to a much worse outcome.

A man rides a paramotor over the Salton Sea in Salton City, California, December 16, 2021

(AFP via Getty Images)

Introducing more water into the Salton Sea to deal with toxic dust from the dry sea floor could cause seismic activity as the water level changes.

“This earthquake will eventually happen—maybe sooner rather than later—no matter what we do,” Dr. Filipuzian told The New York Times.




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