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As if worrying about whether or not the massive San Andreas Fault would erupt after a swarm of 200 earthquakes hit the nearby Salton Sea wasn't enough for Californians, a new fault line was discovered this week in the same area. Researchers are calling it the Salton Trough Fault (STF).

The fault, which lies along the eastern edge of the Salton Sea and runs parallel to the San Andreas Fault, had eluded seismologists up until this point because the sea's bottom has been difficult to map.

Salton Sea Trough (STF), the new fault line, runs very close to the Southern San Andreas Fault (SSAF).Sahakian et al. / Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America

"The location of the fault in the eastern Salton Sea has made imaging it difficult and there is no associated small seismic events, which is why the fault was not detected earlier," principle investigator Neal Driscoll, a geologist at the University of California San Diego, said.

To locate the STF, the research team used instruments—including multi-channel seismic data, ocean-bottom seismometers, and light detection and ranging—to precisely map the deformation within the various sediment layers in and around the sea's bottom.

Scripps geologist Neal Driscoll taking measurements of the onshore sediment layers along the eastern edge of the Salton Sea.Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Writing in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, the authors say "the presence of this fault could alter the current understanding of stress transfer and rupture dynamics in the region, as well as community fault models and ground‐motion simulations on the San Andreas Fault." Meaning, seismologists will have to reassess their earthquake risk models for the greater Los Angeles area.

As the authors explain, recent research has revealed that the region has experienced magnitude-7 earthquakes roughly every 175 to 200 years for the last 1,000 years. But it's been about 320 years since the last major earthquake prompting seismologists to theorize that maybe the STF has something to do with it.

"The extended nature of time since the most recent earthquake on the Southern San Andreas has been puzzling to the earth sciences community," said Nevada State seismologist Graham Kent, a coauthor of the study and former Scripps researcher. "Based on the deformation patterns, this new fault has accommodated some of the strain from the larger San Andreas system, so without having a record of past earthquakes from this new fault, it's really difficult to determine whether this fault interacts with the southern San Andreas Fault at depth or in time."

The discovery of this new fault line will no doubt have researchers busy as they try to determine its character, the hazards it poses and how it interacts with the San Andreas Fault.

"The patterns of deformation beneath the sea suggest that the newly identified fault has been long-lived and it is important to understand its relationship to the other fault systems in this geologically complicated region," Valerie Sahakian, a Scripps alumna and lead author of the study, said.


Is the San Andreas Fault about to unleash The Big One? Southern Californians were on heightened alert this week after a swarm of small quakes in the Salton Sea near the fault triggered officials to issue an earthquake alert for residents in the area.

Aerial photo of San Andreas Fault looking northwest onto the Carrizo Plain with Soda Lake visible at the upper left.John Wiley / User:Jw4nvc

The swarm began just after 4 a.m. on Sept. 26, starting earthquakes three to seven miles deep underneath the Salton Sea, The Los Angeles Times reported. The biggest earthquakes hit later that morning—a 4.3—and then a pair later at night, another 4.3 followed by a 4.1. There was another burst of activity the following night. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said 96 earthquakes above magnitude 2 were reported by Sept. 30.

This is only the third time this area has seen a swarm like this since earthquake sensors were installed in 1932, and it had more earthquakes in it than swarms in 2001 and 2009, LiveScience said.

Earthquakes in the Brawley seismic zone as of the evening of 09/30/2016.U.S. Geological Survey

Based on this activity, on Sept. 27, the USGS said the risk of an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or greater in Southern California increased to between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 100 over the the next seven days. However, as of Friday, Sept. 30, the likelihood was decreasing.

"Preliminary calculations indicate that … there is 0.006% to 0.2% chance (less than 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 500) of a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake being triggered on the southern San Andreas Fault within the next seven days through Oct. 7," the updated warning said. "These revised probabilities are lower than those made earlier this week, due to decreasing swarm activity."

The average chance for such an earthquake striking on any given week is 1 in 6,000.

The risk assessment from USGS prompted California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign legislation Sept. 29 ordering the development of a statewide warning system that would inform Californians of impending earthquakes through their cellphones, radios and other devices, the Associated Press reported.

San Bernardino, which is on the San Andreas Fault, even closed down city hall through today over concerns about how the structure would fare in a big quake. A 2007 report revealed how the building, constructed in 1971, was not built to withstand a major earthquake and would cost about $20 million to get retrofitted for such an event.

"We haven't had an alert like this," Mark Scott, San Bernardino's city manager, told the Los Angeles Times. "We're not trying to suggest that the alert is an impending catastrophe. We're just trying to use an abundance of caution. We care about the safety of the public and our employees."

The city already has plans to vacate the building within the next few months.

Scientists estimate that the last time the San Andreas Fault's southernmost stretch ruptured was in 1680—more than 330 years ago. A big earthquake happens on average in this area once every 150 or 200 years, making the region long overdue for a major quake. The largest historical earthquakes that occurred along the fault were those in 1857 and 1906.

The general location of the San Andreas fault and several other major faults in California.U.S. Geological Survey

The area where this recent swarm occurred was near a set of north-northeast trending cross-faults beneath the Salton Sea, some which are oriented as such that they would add stress to the San Andreas Fault and the San Jacinto Fault system, according to USGS. However, the agency said swarm-like activity in this region has occurred in the past, so this week's activity, in and of itself, is not necessarily cause for alarm.

While this news is somewhat reassuring, residents in Southern California shouldn't breathe too big a sigh of relief, Morgan Page, a research geophysicist with the USGS in Pasadena, told LiveScience.

"We live in earthquake country and we should be prepared for an earthquake at any time," Page said. "Events like this can change the probabilities from week to week but it never goes to zero."

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President Obama made a historic announcement Wednesday, saying that the federal government is considering investing in the geothermal power in the rock formations under the Salton Sea in Southern California. Considered to be "the most powerful geothermal reservoirs in the world," the Salton Sea announcement could play a critical role in the future management of the Colorado River.

Mud flies as carbon dioxide gas from deep underground fissures escapes through geothermal mudpots or mud volcanoes, over the southern San Andreas earthquake fault near the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge near Calipatria, California. David McNew

Fifty years ago, Glen Canyon Dam was built above the Grand Canyon, and the Colorado River was enslaved to generate electricity to feed the hunger of the booming southwestern cities and suburbs. The Colorado's pulsing flows had carved and nourished the Grand Canyon for millennium, but that came to a crashing halt when the gates were closed and the water was ponded in Lake Powell. The environmental damage and steady decline of one of our nation's crown jewels has led to many calls for restoration of the natural system through the removal of Glen Canyon Dam.

The dam's ability to provide power has shielded it from any serious attempt to bring it down. Times change though and, over the last 16 years, the historic drought in the Southwest U.S. has drained Lake Powell to historic lows, severely diminishing the potential to generate hydroelectricity from the massive turbines encased in Glen Canyon Dam. Water and electricity managers are scrambling to come up with a plan to prop up the lake above what's called "power pool" so they can continue to generate and sell power. Any such solution is, however, clearly a stop-gap measure to keep the dam operational and is doomed to fail when confronted by the realities of climate change.

Fortunately, Obama's announcement offers a true path to the future.

The Salton Sea announcement could create an opportunity to replace the hydroelectric power generated at Glen Canyon Dam and a path forward to restoring the Grand Canyon. The geothermal reservoirs under the Salton Sea are an untapped resource that could add power to the grid as Lake Powell is slowly drained and Glen Canyon Dam is removed. Lake Powell's water could be put into Lake Mead, its downstream sister, thus keeping one fully functioning hydroelectric facility on the grid. Further, this "geo-hydro power trade" could keep the federal government solvent in its current financial contracts to provide electricity to the Southwest U.S.

The idea has already generated a bit of a buzz when Geothermal Resources retweeted this tweet:

Climate change scientists have painted a bullseye on the Southwest U.S. and the Colorado River, indicating the area will become warmer and dryer with even less flow in the Colorado River. Hydroelectricity is threatened at both Lakes Powell and Mead, as well as reservoirs in California. Salton Sea geothermal power could be a breakthrough in building a climate change-resistant Southwest while also preserving and restoring the lifeblood of the region—the Colorado River.

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