Natural disasters are as fascinating as they are dangerous. Major earthquakes have struck hard in recent years. Haiti is still recovering from the island shake, while Japan barely avoided a nuclear meltdown after seismic activity crumbled Tohoku. Ecuador and Nepal have both had high-impact quakes of magnitude 7.0 in the last year.
These respective disasters show the potential impact of seismic activity. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, tsunami warning signs at every beach constantly remind visitors about the impending danger of this natural phenomenon. A relatively minor shift in the ground can cause waves that topple cities.
And in a city where a freeway shutdown was deemed an apocalyptic event and given the name “Carmageddon,” one can only imagine the hysteria resulting from large sections of the city shaken down to rubble.
The San Andreas Fault is the cause of the great earthquake potential and the main reason California is given its shaky reputation. The earthquakes felt throughout the state are a result of the friction between the northward-moving Pacific plate and the southward moving-North American plate. The border of these two plates was given the name San Andreas after the 1906 earthquake that tumbled many of the streets of San Francisco.
Although the movement of these plates averages a few centimeters a year, it is not a consistent shift. In successive alterations, the plates can shift a few meters in a momentous quake and then lie dormant for a few centuries. This is the current situation with parts of the San Andreas Fault.
The last time the southern section of the fault shifted was the late 17th century, as geologists date it back to around 1680. This part of the fault, located just east of the Los Angeles area, has been locked in place and gaining potential energy. A possible magnitude 8.0 earthquake would be equivalent to the explosion of six million tons of TNT, according to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI).
But like a volcano, there is no way of knowing when the danger will erupt. “It’s not that we are predicting a significant earthquake, but are noticing the potential,” said Toshiro Tanimoto, a professor of seismology at UCSB.
The eminence of the disaster has been of concern of many people. Last Wednesday, the National Earthquake Conference met in Long Beach, Calif. to discuss the effects and ramifications of an earthquake along the southern San Andreas Fault. Leading experts took into consideration the risk and associated costs of varying degrees of damage. Precautionary initiatives were planned to reinforce concrete buildings in the Coachella Valley and create safer zoning regulations.
With the soft soil of the Los Angeles Basin and surrounding areas, the seismic event could have long-lasting effects. Some CERI estimates show the potential for $200 billion in damages. An earthquake of similar size to that of Ecuador or Japan could even render the sewage system inoperable for months. That’s quite an aftershock.