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Will a really big earthquake really hit California?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Myths abound about the "Big One," the monstrous earthquake that will break California off from the rest of the United States and send it floating into the Pacific Ocean. Seismologists do predict that a significant earthquake, stronger than the former Richter scale readings of 8.0, will likely hit California sometime over the next few decades. They believe a number of locked faults (meeting points of tectonic plates that have so much friction they've locked against each other) are currently building a considerable amount of unreleased energy beneath California.

    Scientists are particularly concerned about the Hayward Fault, which runs below the heavily populated area around Los Angeles and is a major branch of the big kahuna of fault lines: the San Andreas. If the tension building up in all these locked faults releases at once (and one release can trigger another), seismologists expect the blast of energy will create an extremely powerful earthquake. However, even the strongest earthquakes only shift the ground a few feet, and that would only happen under extreme conditions. If the part of California that sits atop the Pacific plate were really to break off and float away, it would take millions of years.

    Speaking of the San Andreas fault, residents above its central-California portion were given a reprieve of sorts when scientists lowered its risk for an earthquake. Scientists from Penn State University studied the minerals present in that region of the fault and found that the rocks (nearly two miles underneath the ground) were weak and not able to provide much resistance to plate movements. Without greater strength to provide resistance, there isn't enough energy that can be stored to unleash the Big One. The upshot is that the central California portion of the San Andreas fault is "highly unlikely" to be hit with anything above a magnitude 6 earthquake, the researchers said [source: Choi].


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