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Recent Berkeley Quakes: Are We Due for the Big One?

| November 2, 2011
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A cluster of recent earthquakes in Berkeley over the past two weeks has made local residents nervous about “the big one.” There’s even been some misinformation circulating about the risk is of an earthquake in the East Bay.

To clear things up, I spoke with Keith Knudsen of the USGS Earthquake Science Center about what we know and what we don’t know about a major earthquake hitting the Bay Area.

Does a sequence of small earthquakes mean that a larger event is on its way?

This really isn’t all that unusual for the Hayward Fault. At first, it seemed a little unusual but we’ve looked back into the recent records and there have been similar swarms of small earthquakes just in the last ten years. There was a swarm in 2006 and another in 2003 just a mile or two to the south.

Phew. I feel better.

Well, any earthquake could be followed by a larger event. These earthquakes could be foreshocks. We don’t know if that’s the case here. It could be. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if we had a magnitude 7.0 on the Hayward Fault. But these recent events don’t make us think that there’s a heightened hazard of a larger quake.

Are we due for a big earthquake on the Hayward Fault?

We can’t predict earthquakes. The reason we don’t use that “p” word is that there really haven’t been patterns that tell us an event is imminent. We do longer term forecasts. Like, we believe there’s a 30% chance of an earthquake on Hayward Fault that’s 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years. But not in a two to three week window as some of these misinformed reports have said.

How do we know that?

We have a 12 earthquake record going back several thousands years on the southern Hayward Fault in Fremont, and those earthquakes are about 160 years apart on average. You add 160 years to 1868, when the last major earthquake occurred on the Hayward Fault, and we’re certainly in the window.

The Hayward fault is the most likely fault in the Bay Area to produce a large earthquake. But if you look at the entire Bay Area, there’s a two in three chance or 63% chance of a magnitude 6.7 or greater somewhere in the Bay Area in the next 30 years.

What’s happening on the Hayward Fault?

It’s a strike-slip fault, which means the two sides are sliding past each other horizontally. There’s not a lot of vertical motion. And it’s what we call a right lateral strike-slip. So if you stand on one side and look across to the other side, that side will move to the right during an earthquake. Over the long-term, that’s happening at a rate of about nine millimeters per year.

Do small earthquakes like these release stress on the fault and decrease the risk of a big quake?

A lot of people ask that. These earthquakes are relatively small compared to a magnitude 7.0. The difference in energy released is huge. You’d need thousands of magnitude 3.5 to equal the amount of stress released by a 7.0. So they probably don’t do anything to release the hazard.

These small quakes certainly aren’t a reason to panic. But anything that makes people better prepared is a good thing. So these are a little bit of a wake up call. We should all be prepared.

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer. Reach Lauren Sommer at lsommer@kqed.org.
  • rj

    You make it seem like every 160 years is a pattern. Where time builds up to affect an earthquake. I thought you were a scientist and understand that earthquakes are caused by pressure in the earth’s crust. Since the earth is so big, and pressure comes from deep within, time has no impact on when earthquakes strike. However, as a pattern of 160 years, I can see your reasoning. But, that is basically akin to “I have no freaking idea”….So, just to clear that up.

    • jh

      Periodicity in nature is a well documented phenomena. What he is pointing out is that, based on past earthquakes, it seems that it takes about 160 years on average for enough pressure to build up that requires a sudden release. This is a reasonable approach to averaging of events so your aren’t quite fair in accusing them of having “no freaking idea.”

  • anon

    Could “patterns” on Earth be related to “patterns” in space? Perhaps the passing asteroid or the solar maximum or some other unknown force affects pressures on the earth’s crust?

  • katlyn melton

    well i hope that there isnt a big enough earthquake that will kill anyone.