San Andreas and The California Gamble

By Frank Remele

The unassuming prospectors of California’s history operated at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. These were the pioneers of economic opportunity—where they went, jobs followed, even in the absence of gold mining success. Despite financial incentive to relocate westward, there were conspicuous risks that associated themselves with the American ideals of exploration and capitalization. But the earliest Californians persevered with the arduous tasks of mobilizing industry and adapting to the golden, sweltering heat of the thirty-first state. Unfortunately, these tamers of the West made a far more ominous gamble in conjunction with their own lives. This gamble would not affect them, but rather their progeny. They did not have the scientific foresight to anticipate it, but it is a looming concern for contemporary Californians as it stands. And it will stand, with statistical and geophysical analysis indicating a foregone conclusion. In spite of several canaries in the coalmine of California, the easygoing residents of the golden state are not particularly concerned with the inevitability of an earthquake of sizable magnitude striking California with force unprecedented in an area of high-density population.

With this knowledge, if one were to selectively identify a data set that galvanized optimism in the hearts of Californians, it would be geophysical indicators of a fault boundary that isn’t likely to produce an earthquake of extreme historical significance. Our most notable fault, the San Andreas Fault, is classified as a transform boundary, which refers to the method by which the plates of North America and the Pacific interact. These aren’t generally known for earthquakes that elicit substantial devastation. Nine of the ten largest recorded earthquakes in history have occurred in subduction zones, a fault boundary that is tightly correlated with both the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes.  

What is alarming and absolutely thwarts the heartwarming data of geoscience is the statistical analysis conducted by researchers. A study conducted on a province of Japan indicated that if the cumulative frequency of earthquakes per year held up linearly, a magnitude ten earthquake would occur once every thirty thousand years. A chart released by the United States Geological Survey observed earthquake trends measured since 1900 and detailed the statistical frequency of an earthquake of any given magnitude per year. The data collected only extends to a magnitude eight frequency, but extrapolating the data leaves us with a far more conspicuous conclusion: there is a 1/100 chance of a magnitude ten earthquake striking the planet every year. While California is not a subduction zone, it is a salient earthquake hotspot with the San Andreas fault being the primary instigator and there has been a major earthquake event within the area before. In 1906, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated San Francisco and left over three thousand dead. Northern California is more densely populated than it was a century ago, and as expected, the aggregate potential for casualties is greater.

California’s proclivity to erect cities with some of the greatest populations in the world do not help its case either. Los Angeles in particular is paramount to New York City with a repository of potential casualties that is only bolstered by the density of its populations and buildings. But New York is at peace with the threat of natural disasters. Its primary detractors typically derive only from films, where the city frequently grapples with nuclear missiles, or an extraterrestrial being of some faction. Los Angeles is privy to earthquakes that have a tangible influence in seismology, but the city’s architectural layout would indicate otherwise.  


It’s a gamble that rivals our forerunners wager, but unlike our forerunners, the  aforementioned gamble is an inevitability. An earthquake of record breaking proportions will absolutely devastate any infrastructure that has been made specifically to combat the raw power of tremors. A seemingly radical idea is the evacuation of citizens out of California. But time will only tell if it is truly radical, as it may be the only way to fully avert a major travesty.


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  1. Kevin Armas says:

    Really enjoy reading your writing!

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