Like Estragon and Vladimir, who are waiting for the inevitable in Waiting for Godot, geologists, too, are waiting for an earthquake to come to Los Angeles and its surrounding communities.
And like the two protagonists in Beckett’s masterpiece, they also don’t know when it will come, where it will appear or the extent of its impact.
So, as you’d imagine, last month’s announcement that an earthquake of mammoth proportions for Los Angeles and southern California is, indeed, on the horizon (how many times already?) produced its share of alarm.
It also produced some skeptics -- and yawns -- as well.
No Sure Thing
According to a study done by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and which first appeared in the magazine Nature, the BIG one, in fact, has been almost 300 years in the making.
The man behind the study, geologist Yuri Fialko, was quoted as putting it this way:
“For the public, the most important result of this study is that these data show definitively that the fault is a significant seismic hazard and is primed for another big earthquake.”
While scientists are unanimous in their beliefs that the San Andreas Fault or one of its not-so-distant cousins will one day do the merengue under the Staples Center; geologists and those who specialize in the study of quakes are reluctant to get into the specifics of where, when and how big and bad it will be -- the very thing that makes headlines.
One such scientist, Don Clarke, city geologist for 23 years for Long Beach, Calif. -- and last year’s chairman of the AAPG House of Delegates, and someone who was not involved in the aforementioned study -- says the public should take even the latest study with a certain amount of skepticism.
“There have been many reports in the past and there will be many more because the San Andreas Fault is a major break in the crust,” Clarke said. “Many scientists have studied the fault and a number of them have made predictions.”
Most of them, it should be noted, were wrong.
Clarke, who also teaches geology and formation of petroleum for the California Oil Mentoring Entrepreneurial Training program (COMET), points out that many of these predictions are no better than those who call political races or who will win the Tour de France, highlighting the biggest blunder in recent history.
“The most famous ... was the Parkfield experiment,” Clarke said. “The USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) scientists had predicted an earthquake was going to occur after 22 years because they had a regular history of 22-year events. They got lots of money and set up an incredible amount of instrumentation.” The moderate-size earthquake was due before 1993.
“The quake did not occur,” he said. Still hasn’t.
Even though Clarke finds nothing particularly “groundbreaking” or “radical” in the report, he is happy the mainstream media have “given it some inches.”
Beyond the San Andreas
This recent Scripps study shied away from any mention of specific time or place. It did, however, restate the obvious: The southern end of the San Andreas Fault, near Los Angeles, is overdue for a major (7-7.9) or great (over 8) magnitude quake.
Specifically, the study revealed that stress has been building up on the lower third of the San Andreas, which runs 800 miles through the midsection of California, and that the fault “could rupture at any moment.”
Previously, little was known about this 100-mile segment in the southern part of the state, which runs from San Bernardino, to the east of Los Angeles, to the Mexican border -- but by using radar and global positioning data to track the movement (or lack thereof) of the fault, Fialko discovered that the southern end of the fault has shown little movement in the past 20 years, which increases strain, which in turn increases the chances of shifting.
The fault’s annual movement (slip rate) was measured to be about an inch a year, which is similar to previous estimates, meaning pressure has been building for some time. This is important, because while a massive quake hit the central section of the state in 1857 and in the northern segment in 1906 (the San Francisco earthquake), the southern section, below Los Angeles, has not seen any serious activity in 300 years.
Fialko, who calls this 300 years of relative inactivity as the interseismic period, also found that the two sides of the southern San Andreas fault are acting independently, with one side showing more flexibility than the other.
Fialko theorizes that inactive period is over and we are now entering a seismic time. The problem, he told National Public Radio, is that nobody can predict when the inch of movement becomes THE INCH that sets off the quake.
And with that, Clarke has no disagreement, but indicates the greater danger is not, in fact, the San Andreas, but other faults in the region.
“The fault of greatest potential to harm Los Angeles is the Newport Inglewood Fault that diagonally crosses the Los Angeles Basin,” he said. “This fault produced the famous Long Beach earthquake in the 1930s that resulted in tighter building codes. The Newport Inglewood fault can produce a 7 magnitude earthquake.
“The San Andreas Fault can produce a greater earthquake,” he added, “but it is 40 to 60 miles away from significant urban development.”
The irony of all this is that the potential disaster in the region also has been a geologic bonanza. Clarke states that both the Whittier and Newport are sites of significant oil accumulations.
Most of Clarke’s work with Long Beach involved oil development work, because the city is a major oil operator (Wilmington oil field).
“Much of the oil found in the Los Angeles Basin is associated with active earthquake faults,” he said. “The tectonics pose a danger but they provide the structural traps for valuable oil to accumulate in.”
Living On the Edge
Clarke reminds that other faults in the Los Angeles area also have produced significant earthquakes like Whittier, and that some researchers have predicted that the Compton thrust that underlies the basin could also be a significant earthquake generator.
“The new prediction has the earthquake occurring south of the major metropolitan areas,” he said. “Palm Springs and San Bernardino are much closer.”
Also of concern, according to the study, is the relatively little-known San Jacinto Fault, which is under San Bernardino, Riverside and Borrego Springs; Fialko reported it is moving at twice the speed of previous estimates.
Fialko also reported that San Jacinto is thought to pose an even greater risk for an earthquake of magnitude 7, which is still enough to get you -- or throw you -- out of bed.
If that happens, or some combination of the above, many scientists in the field believe thousands of people in the Los Angeles region could be killed with an accompanying billions of dollars in property damage.
And, worse, according to Clarke, the area doesn’t seem ready.
“The region is ill prepared to take on a major disaster,” he says, citing a Los Angeles Times report that shows little coordination and planning between the agencies involved.
Illustrating his point is a statistic from the California Earthquake Authority, a leading residential earthquake insurer, which shows that only a little more than 13 percent of southern California homeowners now buy earthquake coverage.
The recent study, as those previously, have once again heightened expectations that the BIG one is coming and scientists have a handle on when.
Clarke wants to urge caution.
“Predictions have historically been bad,” he said, cautioning those to look at these studies as forecasts instead.
He then says something equal parts obvious, chilling and unsatisfying.
“If earthquakes are occurring along the plate edges, then expect one if you live on a plate edge.”
In California’s case, that’s about 34 million people.