Category Archives: Geology

USGS Earthquake Swarms Information

There appears to be the beginnings of a small swarm of earthquakes in the Brawley Seismic Zone, this time in the town of Brawley, California. The USGS has a great website on swarms and why they occur.

Site Expansion Coming Soon – Imperial Valley Geology

As an extension of my coverage of the geology here in Southern California, I intend to add a page on the geology in the Imperial Valley region. Subjects such as the Salton Sea, mud pots, Lake Cahuilla, the Colorado River Delta, and more as time permits. There is a lot to cover and more to the region than normally meets the eye.

Help the USGS with Earthquakes!

How can you help the United States Geological Survey? One simple way is to report to them when you feel an earthquake. This data helps them determine magnitude of the earthquake, how the geology affects that, and how the type of structure reacts to the event. Most earthquakes larger than 4.0 are listed in the “Events”  section of the page. So, help the USGS understand how earthquakes affect our region by contacting them at: “Did You Feel It?

Landslide Threats in Southern California

Southern California has many areas that are susceptible to landslides in many forms. The past couple of weeks have demonstrated that these slides can have dramatic affects on the regions infrastructure. While most slides aren’t that preventable, the damage they can create can be mitigated.

Understanding the signs of a pending landslide are fairly easy and should not be ignored. If you live in an area where landslides are possible, look for these signs:

  • Ground cracks, particularly ones that appear to pull apart
  • Sinking areas or changes in ground level
  • Unexplained leaks in pipes
  • Tilting poles
  • New cracks appearing in a structure
  • New springs or areas where water seems to drain without appearing on the surface

These signs are important to look out for. The first one, ground cracks, are the most obvious. They tend to arcuate and numerous. The largest ones may mark the head of the slide, though that is not a precise indicator of how large a slide may become. Ground cover itself doesn’t prevent deep seated landslides but it can help with smaller surficial slope failures. If you see any of these signs, please contact an engineering geologist or other local official to help assess the likelihood of a failure. Doing so can help prevent injury, loss of life, and property damage.

Mudslides, such as those that recently blocked Interstate 5 in Grapevine Canyon and State Route 58 in Cache Creek Canyon, are more common on steeper slopes with loose material. These tend to happen more commonly in areas which have burned recently, leaving little plant material and a soil that is less porous than it was previously. Those conditions, combined with a heavy rainfall, can turn that material into a thick mud which can easily move larger objects, such as boulders and trucks. As such, these slides can be very dangerous and fast moving.

The California Geological Survey has put together a series of maps to help determine the likelihood of a slope failure. These maps cover most of the metropolitan regions of California and are a great resource. They should, however, only be used as a guideline for potential slope failures. A more exact analysis should be determined through a geological report on your specific location.

Earthquakes and Movies

Lately, there has been quite a bit of press about the recent “San Andreas” movie. To me, this movie sets back the general public’s knowledge and understanding about how earthquakes create damage in Southern California.

Some basic stereotypes exist in the movie, many of which are completely false. Starting with the magnitude of the earthquake in the movie – No fault line in Southern California is capable of anything larger than about an 8.2. The only one truly capable of such an event, the San Andreas Fault, is also many miles from Los Angeles and is mostly separated from the Los Angeles Basin by the San Gabriel Mountains. Anything larger than a 9.0 is in the domain of “megathrusts” or subduction zones. In California, the only subduction zone is the southern end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which ends at the “Mendocino Triple Junction” just offshore of Cape Mendocino. It last produced something close to a 9.2 or so in January 1700.

Tsunamis, especially ones of great height, are also not in the forecast for a large earthquake here in Southern California. Tsunamis are created by the large scale displacement of water, similar to sloshing in a bathtub. Move your hand below the water quickly, you create a wave on the surface. Usually, tsunamis that are related to earthquakes are caused by the movement of the fault itself, typically megathrust faults underneath the ocean. We just don’t have those in Southern California. Even the largest tsunami generated by such a fault may only be tens of feet high, certainly not hundreds of feet.

Big cracks just don’t open up in the land from earthquakes, certainly nothing like those represented in the movie. Fissures are created by earthquakes, however. These fissures are usually the result of settlement or fault movement. They aren’t that large either way.

Structural damage is also not going to be as great as represented. Mind you, a large magnitude earthquake centered in the Los Angeles Basin will do a great deal of damage. Water mains, sewer mains, gas lines, power lines, and other utilities will be compromised in many locations creating shortages and, in some cases, fires. Buildings may collapse or be damaged beyond repair. The underlying geology will determine some of the damage extent. The rest will be determined by building type and its susceptibility to seismic waves. Either way, the skyscrapers in Downtown Los Angeles won’t be toppling like trees anytime soon. I’d still stay away from the area after a major event though, as there would be an immense amount of glass and debris creating hazards for travel.

Keeping all this in mind, and also keeping with the theme that Southern California officials have been doing, use this opportunity to prepare yourself for a major earthquake. They can strike at any time and will create problems for all of us that live, work, and visit this region. The best way to survive a major catastrophe is to be prepared. Part of that preparation is to know your region, know the routes, and know where the problem areas may be following a major earthquake.

For further information, I highly recommend contacting your local Emergency Services agency in your city and county. They have a great deal of resources to help you prepare for an event like a major earthquake.