The Devastating Potential of the San Andreas Fault

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Introduction

Discussion about the due date of California’s San Andreas Fault major earthquake birth has reignited since a leading expert claimed the line is “locked, loaded, and ready to roll” last month (Lin). The fault line is an ancient tectonic boundary between the slowly traversing Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. Moving at roughly two feet per year, the line has accumulated 26 feet of built up movement since its last titanic blow out 159 years ago (Nace). Experts say this means the San Andreas Fault is ready to go, and while some are evaluating the risks other are simply out for all they can steal.

Rumble and Bumble

The last huge earthquake to hit Southern California San Andreas fault was of the magnitude 7.9 in 1857. The devastation ruptured 185 miles of land between Monterey County and the San Gabriel Mountains just outside of Los Angeles (Lin). Earthquakes are difficult to predict with much certainty, as the planet’s internal workings remain mysterious. Using prediction of probability distributions, experts observe and ponder. As such, "The theory behind why we expect the next significant earthquake to be a big one becomes apparent in a few of the envelope calculations. The average rate of plate movement along the San Andreas Fault has remained fairly consistent at approximately 2 inches per year for the last several million years. Given the aforementioned 159-year gap in a major earthquake along part of the San Andreas Fault, that would mean average plate movement has accumulated 26 feet of movement since then (Nace)".

This natural movement of tectonic plates represents no risk to the planet, but monumental risk to the structures and life on the surface. The boom and bust cycle of the continents’ shifting may be a natural process for the mammoth consciousness of the planet, but for the smaller scope of life on the surface this can be a terrifying prospect. Experts ruminate, "The accumulated strain built up from 159 years and 26 feet of plate movement provides the ammunition needed for a major earthquake on the order of M8.0. At some the rock holding that strain will break when the strain overcomes the tensile strength of the surrounding rock. At this point, the two plates will quickly snap to a state of equilibrium or close to it, thrusting the plates from their current position (Nace)".

Last summer this terrifying entertaining prospect of doom was played out in the film San Andreas staring Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. In which, “A giant earthquake will strike California this summer. Skyscrapers will topple, the Hoover Dam will crumble and a massive tsunami will wash across the Golden Gate Bridge” (Zielinski). However, the public has largely had their fill of death defying disaster through watching the news, and the film was not a blockbuster. While the filmmakers of San Andreas consulted earthquake specialist, Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, Jordan admits after seeing the film that they did not take much of his advice (Zielinski). Jordan emphasizes, “The really big tsunamis, like the one that hit Japan, are caused by earthquakes that generate a major displacement of the ocean floor” (Zielinski). While the Big One would be devastating, it would not be able to match the film version. 

Seismologists have a much more grounded approach to analyzing the likelihood of the Big One. They report, “The latest forecast, published earlier this year by the USGS, estimates a 7 percent chance that a magnitude 8 quake will occur in California within the next 30 years” (Zielinski). Experts emphasize it is unlikely that the entire fault would rupture from Mexico up to Northern California, which is what it would take to create a 8.3 magnitude quake. In order to understand what would likely occur if the Big One hit, experts met a few years ago to map out the course of crisis, calling it the ShakeOut scenario: 

Seismologists modeled how the ground would shake and then other experts, including engineers and social scientists, used that information to estimate the resulting damage and impacts. The detailed report examines the effects of a hypothetical 7.8 quake that strikes the Coachella Valley at 10 a.m. on November 13, 2008. In the following minutes, the earthquake waves travel across California, leveling older buildings, disrupting roads and severing electric, telephone and water lines. But the quake is only the beginning. Hundreds of fires start, and with roads blocked and the water system damaged, emergency personnel aren’t be able to put them all out. Smaller fires merge into larger ones, taking out whole sections of Los Angeles. The lines that bring water, electricity and gas to Los Angeles all cross the San Andreas fault—they break during the quake and won’t be fixed for months. Though most modern buildings survive the shaking, many are rendered structurally unusable. Aftershocks shake the state in the following days, continuing the destruction. (Zielinski)

Experts share that this is also a conservative estimate, the likely cost of damage would easily top $200 billion. Researchers point out only about 2,000 would be projected to die, but the psychological cost would be staggering. Experts underestimate the willpower of Californians, saying, "‘It’s about being miserable after the earthquake and people giving up on Southern California’… Everything a city relies on to function—water, electricity, sewage systems, telecommunications, roads—would be damaged and possibly not repaired for more than a year. Without functioning infrastructure, the local economy could easily collapse, and people would abandon Los Angeles (Zielinski)".

In all likelihood Californians would recover and rebuild much as the people of New Orleans did not abandon their devastated landscape. The power of the human spirit is often underestimated preemptively only to outshine all dim deterministic projections. However, the risks do not end with this scenario, for however brilliant the human spirit may be there remains those who willfully court disaster for profit. 

What the Frack?

Regardless of the real risks of the San Andreas Fault (not to mention the super-volcano in Yellowstone) oil and natural gas companies continue to violently extract resources and dump waste oh so close to the danger zone (National Geographic). Analyzing the risks, Shaky Ground found:

(List omitted for preview. Available via download).

Unfortunately, state regulators are doing nothing to stop dangerous profiteering, and protect the people of the region. This issue is compounded by the drought, and the reality of land subsidence which occurs with a loss of groundwater causing the land to sink (California Water Science Center). All of this puts too much pressure on a fault line already ready to burst, and represents an irrational exploitation of the environment.  Wastewater wells are being created to dump the toxic water from fracking and acidizing. Analysts alarmingly report the “Number of active/new wells (percent) and Distance to recently active fault: 87 wells (6%) Within 1 mile; 350 wells (23%) Within 5 miles; 834 wells (54%) Within 10 miles” (Shaky Ground). It is alarming that this trend is going unchecked in the face of compounding ecological threats, not the least of these are the magnitude of Climate Change. 

What to Do?

In the face of this perfect storm of threat it is key to know not only the likelihood of danger, but what to do in the case of it in order to be as prepared as possible. Seismologist experts share that homeowners “can retrofit their property to better hold up against shaking. People can include fire extinguishers in their earthquake kits to put out little flames before they get out of hand. And schools, businesses and families can participate in ShakeOut drills” (Zielinksi). For many this is not enough, and residents of the region are looking for greater methods of protection. 

Seismologists are emphasizing there is no way to predict an earthquake. They “can measure increased toxic gasses and increased heat flow to predict volcanic eruptions, measure wind and weather patterns via satellites, and measure tsunami potential from earthquakes. Unfortunately, there are no telltale signs of an imminent earthquake” (Nace). Much of what experts do know if gleaned from past observations, while future predictions remain uncertain. Seismologists emphasize, “The only certainty is that the plates continue to move whether there is an earthquake or not to relieve the stress. The longer the time between earthquakes, generally leads to more powerful and devastating earthquake” (Nace). From that perspective it would probably be better if the Big One happened sooner rather than later for the safety and risk reduction of the whole region. 

Rather than denial or avoidance of such disaster scenarios it would be far wiser to prepare for them, but that would mean living and building within the scope of reality and not in the scope of dreams. A LA related to the immanence of the Big One would have differently made buildings at different heights, and enforce different environmental regulations. More effort would go into level headed prevention that sensationalism, bravado, and profiteering. However, that is not the LA of today, and humanity continues to struggle and stumble through the clarity of hindsight which has not yet caught up to the present (Palus and Peek). 

Conclusion

Throughout the history of humankind the planet has violently transformed over and over again, forcing humanity through the boom and bust cycles of evolution. This process has not changed, and the recent increase in violent storms emphasizes this process may be heating up again. The San Andreas Fault is one of the many risky hotspots on the planet, which people would do well to respect.

Works Cited

California Water Science Center. “Drought Impacts.” Ca.water.usgus.gov, n.d. Retrieved from: http://ca.water.usgs.gov/data/drought/drought-impact.html

Lin, Rong-Gong II. “San Andreas fault 'locked, loaded and ready to roll' with big earthquake, expert says.” Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-san-andreas-fault-earthquake-20160504-story.html

Nace, Trevor. “The San Andreas Fault Is On The Brink Of A Devastating Earthquake.” Forbes, 8 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2016/05/08/san-andreas-fault-brink-devastating-earthquake/#11d3024c5e44

National Geographic. “Yellowstone Volcano: Is ‘the Beast’ building to a violent tantrum?” Nationalgeographic.com, n.d. Retrieved from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/08/0828_wireyellowstone_2.html

Palus, Shannon, and Katie Peek. “Our Fault: How California is predicting and Preparing for the Inevitable.” Popular Science, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.popsci.com/extreme-science-san-andreas

Shaky Ground. “How Oil Companies Increase California’s Earthquake Risk.” Shakyground.org, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.shakyground.org

Zielinksi, Sarah. “What Will Really Happen When San Andreas Unleashes the Big One?”. Smithsonian.com, 28 May 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-will-really-happen-california-when-san-andreas-unleashes-big-one-180955432/?no-ist