Three things scientists want to know after California’s July earthquakes

One of them: Is tectonic activity slowly shifting away from the San Andreas Fault?

This section of California’s State Route 178 crumbled and closed after a powerful magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the region on July 5. USGS

In early July, two large earthquakes rattled southern California. Scientists are now scrambling to understand what led to the temblors and what they might tell us about future quakes.

A magnitude 6.4 quake struck July 4 near the town of Ridgecrest. That’s about 194 kilometers (121 miles) northeast of Los Angeles. The next day, a magnitude 7.1 quake shook the same region. 

Both quakes took place in a high desert area. The crisscrossing faults here are known as the Eastern California Shear Zone. They are quite a distance from California’s infamous San Andreas Fault.

That fault stretches nearly 1,300 kilometers (some 800 miles) and generally takes center stage for California’s earthquake activity. There, the Pacific tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate slowly grind past each other. This can cause sections of ground to lock together for a while. That brake on their movement allows strain to buildup. Eventually it will suddenly release, producing powerful quakes.

For the last few tens of millions of years, the San Andreas has been the primary origin of massive earthquakes in southern California. It’s also now overdue for a massive earthquake, based on historic trends. Many people fear it’s only a matter of time before another truly “Big One” strikes.

But as shown by the July 4 and July 5 quakes — and their many aftershocks —the San Andreas Fault system isn’t the only area of concern. California is riddled with faults, notes geophysicist Susan Hough. She works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. Almost all of the state is part of the general boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. The Eastern California Shear Zone itself has been the source of several large quakes in the last few decades. These include the magnitude 7.1 Hector Mine quake in 1999. There was also the magnitude 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994 and a magnitude 7.3 Landers quake in 1992.

Here are three questions scientists are trying to answer in the wake of quakes on July 4 and 5.

Which faults ruptured, and how?

The quakes appear to have occurred, here, along previously unmapped faults. These include a section known as the Little Lake Fault Zone. Its broad bunch of cracks are difficult to map, Hough says. “It’s not like the San Andreas, where you can go out and put your hand on a single fault,” she explains. And, she adds, the zone also lies within a U.S. Navy base. Such military sites generally are not open for mapping by geologists.

But preliminary data do offer some clues. They suggest that the first rupture may actually have been a two-fer: Instead of one fault rupturing, two connected faults — or conjugate faults — may have ruptured at almost the same time. They would have produced the July 4 quake.

It’s possible that the first quake didn’t fully release the strain on that fault, but that the larger, second quake did. “My guess is that they will turn out to be complementary,” Hough says. By that, she means they will turn out to be related.

The jury is still out, though, says Wendy Bohon. She’s a geologist at Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology in Washington, D.C. “What parts of the fault broke, and whether a part of the fault broke twice … I’m waiting to see what the scientific consensus is on that.”

It is not yet clear, she adds, whether a simultaneous rupture of a conjugate fault is surprising. It may turn out to be common, she says. The data simply haven’t amassed to show that yet. “In nature, we see a lot of conjugate-fault pairs,” she says. “I don’t think they normally rupture at the same time.” But if they do, “We haven’t had enough data to see that.”

Is the center of tectonic action moving away from the San Andreas?

Data from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites have revealed exactly how the ground is shifting in California as the giant tectonic plates slide past one another. The San Andreas Fault system bears most of the strain, those data show — some 70 percent. But the Eastern California Shear Zone bears the other 30 percent. And the large quakes seen there over the last few decades raise an interesting possibility, Hough says: We may be witnessing the birth pangs of a new boundary.

“The plate boundary system has been evolving for a long time already,” Hough says. For the last 30 million years or so, the action has focused along the San Andreas Fault. But just north of Santa Barbara, Calif., lies a “big bend” in the fault. This kink separates the northern and southern portions of the fault. Where the fault bends, the Pacific and North American plates aren’t sliding past one another but colliding into each other.

“The plates are trying to move,” she says. “But the San Andreas is actually not well aligned with that motion.” The Eastern California Shear Zone is. And some geologists are now asking whether this is a new plate boundary in the making. The changeover would take “millions of years,” she adds. “It’s not going to be in anyone’s lifetime.”

Will these quakes trigger the Big One on the San Andreas?

Such large quakes inevitably raise fears of setting off the Big One. Historically, the San Andreas has produced a massive quake about once every 150 years. “It has been pretty quiet in the San Andreas since 1906,” Hough notes. That’s when an estimated magnitude 7.9 quake along the northern portion of the fault devastated San Francisco. The southern portion of the San Andreas is even more overdue for a massive quake. Its last biggie was an estimated magnitude 7.9 quake in 1857, she says. 

The recent quakes aren’t likely to change that situation. Subsurface shifting due to a large earthquake can alter strains on nearby faults. But it’s unlikely that the quakes either relieved stress or will ultimately trigger another quake along the San Andreas system, Hough says. The reason? Basically, the early July quakes were too far away. “The disruption [from one earthquake] of other faults decreases really quickly with distance,” she explains.

Some early assessments do suggest that the 7.1 earthquake on July 5 triggered some slippage, also known as creep, along at least one shallow fault in the southern San Andreas system. But such slow, shallow slips don’t produce earthquakes, Hough points out.

July’s back-to-back quakes could have perturbed much closer faults. One of them, the Garlock Fault, runs roughly west to east along the northern edge of the Mojave Desert. That would be nothing novel: The 1992 Landers quake may have triggered a magnitude 5.7 quake two weeks later along the Garlock Fault.

“Generations of graduate students are going to be studying these events,” notes Bohon. They’ll be looking, she says, into angles of the faults, how the ground moved — even how the visible evidence of a rupture can disappear over time. 

For now, scientists are eagerly trading ideas on social media. “It’s the equivalent of listening in on scientists shouting down the hallway: ‘Here’s my data — what do you have?’” Bohon explains. Those initial ideas and explanations will almost certainly evolve as more information comes in, she adds. “It’s early days yet.”

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer at Science News. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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