Be afraid —Very Afraid!!!
LA Times – The seismic storm that unleashed more than 1,000 small earthquakes in San Bernardino and Riverside counties these last three weeks elicited what has become a typical reaction in quake country.
To some, the “swarmageddon” 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles brought fear that a bigger threat was coming. To others, as long as they didn’t feel a shake, it was easy to just put it out of their minds.
California has small quakes all the time — a magnitude 3 every other day, on average. But not all of them act the same, and some bring more danger than others.
There is general agreement that the recent swarm probably isn’t a precursor to a catastrophic quake. But other small quakes — especially ones near major fault lines like the San Andreas — are potential warnings.
“I would redefine normal as: You should still be prepared for a large earthquake,” U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist Andrea Llenos said. “We do know a big earthquake is going to happen” — just not when and where.
The last time earthquake scientists were especially concerned in California about a large triggered earthquake was nearly three years ago.
On Sept. 26, 2016, a rapid succession of small earthquakes — the strongest a trio measuring above magnitude 4.0 — began rupturing under the Salton Sea close to the San Andreas fault. Scientists worried those quakes could set off a domino effect, reawakening the southern San Andreas from its long slumber. That fault is capable of producing a magnitude 8.2 quake.
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Their worst fears didn’t materialize.
But “any time you have an increase in the number of small earthquakes,” Llenos said, “you’re likely to increase the likelihood of a slightly larger earthquake happening.”
There have long been myths associated with small quakes.
“Half the people are saying, ‘Oh, they’re having a lot of earthquakes — it gets rid of the energy, it makes us safer.’ And half of them are going, ‘Oh, my God, we’re having earthquakes. We’re going to have the Big One,’ ” seismologist Lucy Jones said.
“The idea that little earthquakes make the Big One less likely doesn’t work. And the idea that it makes it certain to happen doesn’t work,” Jones said. “Any earthquake has a slight increase in the chance of having something” worse coming next, she added. “But mostly, it’s really small.”
(There’s only a 5% chance any particular earthquake will be followed up by something larger.)
The Fontana earthquake swarm that began on May 25, with its largest event a magnitude 3.2, was much less of a concern — it’s quite a ways away from the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults, two of California’s scariest. That’s why, Llenos said, “it’s probably not going to affect the likelihood of larger earthquakes happening.”
Most swarms aren’t cause for concern, and can be thought of simply as “a bunch of small earthquakes that are more of an irritant than otherwise,” Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson said. There was the 2015 Fillmore swarm in Ventura County, for example, with more than 1,400 quakes, maxing out at magnitude 2.8.
According to Jones, there’s nothing particularly more ominous about swarms versus a single small temblor.
Places that have fluids moving around underground, where magma can heat up groundwater, are more likely to have swarms. They include the Salton Sea geothermal field in Imperial County, the Coso volcanic field of Inyo County, Mammoth Mountain in Mono County and the Geysers geothermal field in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
There’s an ongoing earthquake swarm around the town of Cahuilla, about 20 miles east of Temecula in Riverside County, that started in 2016 and is moving westward and getting shallower, probably triggered by the movement of groundwater. But it’s not particularly close to any major faults.
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