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When Could the Next Large Earthquake Occur Along the San Andreas Fault?

Along the Earth's plate boundaries, such as the San Andreas fault, segments exist where no large earthquakes have occurred for long intervals of time. Scientists term these segments "seismic gaps" and, in general, have been successful in forecasting the time when some of the seismic gaps will produce large earthquakes. Geologic studies show that over the past 1,400 to 1,500 years large earthquakes have occurred at about 150-year intervals on the southern San Andreas fault. As the last large earthquake on the southern San Andreas occurred in 1857, that section of the fault is considered a likely location for an earthquake within the next few decades. The San Francisco Bay area has a slightly lower potential for a great earthquake, as less than 100 years have passed since the great 1906 earthquake; however, moderate-sized, potentially damaging earthquakes could occur in this area at any time.

San Francisco fire
A devastating fire followed the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco
(photo from the P.E. Hotz Collection, USGS Library, Menlo Park, California)
Full size image - 128k

A great earthquake very possibly will not occur unannounced. Such an earthquake may be preceded by an increase in seismicity for several years, possibly including several foreshocks of about magnitude 5 along the fault. Before the next large earthquake, seismologists also expect to record changes in the Earth's surface, such as a shortening of survey lines across the fault, changes in elevation, and effects on strainmeters in wells. A key area for research on methods of earthquake prediction is the section of the San Andreas fault near Parkfield in central California, where a moderate-size earthquake has occurred on the average of every 20-22 years for about the last 100 years. Since the last sizeable earthquake occurred in 1966, Parkfield has a high probability for a magnitude 5-6 earthquake before the end of this century and possibly one may occur within a few years of 1988. The U.S. Geological Survey has placed an array of instruments in the Parkfield area and is carefully studying the data being collected, attempting to learn what changes might precede an earthquake of about that size.

San Fernando overpass collapse

The San Fernando earthquake of 1971 collapsed freeway overpasses in southern California
(photo by Robert E. Wallace)
Full size image - 95k

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