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Climate and Environment

OK, The Less Threatening Part Of The San Andreas Fault Could Still Cause A Big Earthquake. But Don't Panic!

A sign at the San Andreas Fault reads: Now Entering North American Plate. In a field alongside the road.
A bridge crosses over the San Andreas Fault from the Pacific to the North American tectonic plates near Parkfield, California in 2019.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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New evidence shows that a relatively mild midsection of the San Andreas fault may not stay that way. Of course, we turned to Lucy Jones, a noted Southern California seismologist, for her take.

She basically told us, no need to panic.

The middle of the San Andreas isn't known for big, destructive earthquakes, like the big ones that hit farther north on the fault in 1906 and 1989. Now a study recently published in the Journal of Geology warns that the midsection has produced many big quakes in the past, some measuring 6.8 magnitudes or greater.

Jones, however, says that scenario is unlikely because the midsection isn't locked up and storing as much energy as other parts of the fault.

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"To have that big earthquake with lots of slip, you have to have stored slip there," Jones said.

[In case you want to understand that concept more, here's a link to Jones's podcast on it.]

The study also notes that the last time a big quake hit the middle of the San Andreas was about 2,000 years ago. Since then, smaller temblors have been more common in the area.

Jones says that releases pressure and lowers the likelihood of "the Big One" least, along that part of the fault.

Like California itself, the 800-mile fault line is a complicated place.