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Quake research suggests another major one overdue

More big hits found along San Andreas

From a helicopter over the Carrizo Plain, a southern section of  San Andreas Fault in California, the fault line is visible. (ABC / The Spokesman-Review)
From a helicopter over the Carrizo Plain, a southern section of San Andreas Fault in California, the fault line is visible. (ABC / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jia-Rui Chong Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – Large earthquakes have rumbled along a southern section of the San Andreas Fault more frequently than previously believed, suggesting that Southern California could be overdue for a strong temblor on the notorious fault line, a new study has found.

The Carrizo Plain section of the San Andreas has not seen a massive quake since the much-researched 7.9 Fort Tejon temblor of 1857, which is considered the most powerful earthquake to hit Southern California in modern times.

But new research by University of California, Irvine, scientists to be published this week found major quakes occurred there roughly every 137 years over the last 700 years. Until now, scientists have believed big quakes have occurred along the fault roughly every 200 years.

The findings are significant because seismologists have long believed this portion of the fault is capable of sparking the so-called “Big One” that officials have for decades warned will eventually occur in Southern California.

“It’s been long enough since 1857 that we should be concerned about another great earthquake that ruptures through this part of the fault,” said Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, who was not involved in the study.

Many scientists thought the Carrizo area produced relatively infrequent earthquakes – but ones on the massive scale of the Fort Tejon temblor. Now, the new work suggests the area produces more quakes but also ones of a smaller magnitude than Fort Tejon, said Ray Weldon, a University of Oregon geologist who was not involved in the research, but reviewed the paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Such temblors would still likely be at least the size of the 1994 Northridge quake, which had a magnitude of 6.7, experts warned.

“Even moderate earthquakes on the San Andreas can cause considerable damage, so the overall hazard and risk has gone up,” Weldon said.

The section of the San Andreas Fault threading through the dry Carrizo Plain is one of the most famous and photographed parts of the fault because creek beds and other features on one side of the fault have clearly shifted away from matching features on the other side. Located about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the Carrizo area was one of the main sections that ruptured in the 1857 quake. That rupture, roaring southwest into the Los Angeles basin, rocked parts of the region so hard that men were thrown to the ground.

Lisa Grant Ludwig, a principal investigator on the study, first visited the Carrizo Plain about 20 years ago, digging trenches in an area west of the Panorama Hills known as the Bidart Fan. By looking at the pattern of soils and using radiocarbon dating on charcoal deposits, she found evidence of five large quakes dating to the early 1200s. She found a gap of some 400 years between the 1857 earthquake and the one before, but only about 100 years separating the three quakes before those.

But the age ranges were very rough and the samples had to be fairly large, about the size of a jelly bean. Ludwig saved field notes and hundreds of soil samples in glass vials in her garage for more than 15 years, hoping that radiocarbon dating techniques would improve.

Once the technology improved so that Ludwig and her colleagues could date samples with much higher precision and analyze charcoal flakes as small as the tip of a pencil, they went back to Ludwig’s archive.

The re-dating effort found that the four earthquakes before the 1857 temblor probably occurred about 1310, 1393, 1585 and 1640.

“We were better able to constrain the dates and show that actually these five earthquakes were pretty evenly spaced,” Ludwig said.

Because they have only a handful of earthquakes for the last few hundred years, scientists can’t be sure that the pattern will hold, Ludwig said.

Ludwig’s team has dug new trenches in the area to supplement the re-dating project, hoping to find new soil samples that show the increased frequency of large earthquakes.

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