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5.7.10: Do Faults Talk To Each Other? (Earthquakes Triggered By Other Earthquakes)

  • Page ID
    6029
  • Overview

    A probability curve for the Cascadia Subduction Zone or the San Andreas Fault treats these features as individual structures, influenced by neither adjacent faults nor other earthquakes. A 1988 probability forecast for the San Francisco Bay Area treated each fault separately.

     

    But the 1992 Landers Earthquake in the Mojave Desert appears to have been triggered by earlier earthquakes nearby. The Landers Earthquake also triggered earthquakes hundreds of miles away, including an earthquake at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas. The North Anatolian Fault, a San Andreas-type fault in Turkey, was struck by a series of earthquakes starting in 1939 and then continuing westward for the next sixty years, like falling dominoes, culminating in a pair of earthquakes in 1999 at Izmit and Düzce that killed tens of thousands of people.

     

    Ross Stein and his colleagues Bob Simpson and Ruth Harris of the USGS figure that an earthquake on a fault increases stress on some adjacent faults and decreases stress on others. An earthquake temporarily increases the probability of an earthquake on nearby faults because of this increased stress. For example, the Mojave Desert earthquakes might have advanced the time of the next great earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault by about fourteen years. This segment of the fault has a relatively high probability anyway since it experienced its most recent earthquake around A.D. 1680, but the nearby Mojave Desert earthquakes might have increased the probability even more.

     

    In the same way, a great earthquake can reduce the probability of an earthquake on nearby faults. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the seventy-five year period before the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was unusually active, with at least fourteen earthquakes with magnitude greater than 6 on the San Andreas and East Bay faults. Two or three earthquakes were greater than M 6.8. But in the next seventy-five years after 1906, this same area experienced only one earthquake greater than M 6. It appears that the 1906 earthquake cast a stress shadow over the entire Bay Area, reducing the number of earthquakes that would have been expected based only on slip rate and the time of the most recent earthquake on individual faults. But the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and 2014 Napa Earthquake might mean that this quiet period is at an end.

     

    However, to keep us humble, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake has not been followed by other large earthquakes on nearby faults. Also, the 1992 Landers Earthquake was followed not by an earthquake on the southern San Andreas fault but by the Hector Mine Earthquake in an area where stress had been expected to be reduced, not raised. Maybe the Landers and Hector Mine earthquakes reduced rather than increased the probability of an earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault. As in so many other areas of earthquake forecasting, nature turns out to be more complicated than our prediction models. Faults might indeed talk to each other, but we don’t understand their language very well.