The San Andreas Fault is a continental transform fault that runs a length of roughly 1,300 kilometers (810 mi) through California in the United States, and through Baja California in Mexico. The fault's motion is right-lateral strike-slip (horizontal motion). It forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate.
The fault was first identified in Northern California by UC Berkeley geology professor Andrew Lawson in 1895 and named by him after a small lake which lies in a linear valley formed by the fault just south of San Francisco, the Laguna de San Andreas. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Lawson also discovered that the San Andreas Fault stretched southward into Southern California. Large-scale (hundreds of kilometers) lateral movement along the fault was first proposed in a 1953 paper by US Geological Survey geologists Thomas Dibblee and Mason Hill.
The San Andreas Fault can be divided into three segments.
The southern segment (known as the Mojave segment) begins near the Salton Sea at the northern terminus of the East Pacific Rise and runs northward before it begins a slow bend to the west where it meets the San Bernardino Mountains. It runs along the southern base of the San Bernardino Mountains, crosses through the Cajon Pass and continues to run northwest along the northern base of the San Gabriel Mountains. These mountains are a result of movement along the San Andreas Fault and are commonly called the Transverse Range. In Palmdale, a portion of the fault is easily examined as a roadcut for the Antelope Valley Freeway runs directly through it.
After crossing through Frazier Park, the fault begins to bend northward. This area is referred to as the “Big Bend” and is thought to be where the fault locks up in Southern California as the plates try to move past each other. This section of the fault has an earthquake-recurrence interval of roughly 140–160 years. Northwest of Frazier Park, the fault runs through the Carrizo Plain, a long, treeless plain within which much of the fault is plainly visible. The Elkhorn Scarp defines the fault trace along much of its length within the plain.
The central segment of the San Andreas fault runs in a northwestern direction from Parkfield to Hollister. While the southern section of the fault and the parts through Parkfield experience earthquakes, the rest of the central section of the fault exhibits a phenomenon called aseismic creep, where the fault slips slowly without causing earthquakes.
The northern segment of the fault runs from Hollister, through the Santa Cruz Mountains, epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, then on up the San Francisco Peninsula, where it was first identified by Professor Lawson in 1895, then offshore at Pacifica at Mussel Rock. This is the approximate location of the epicenter of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The fault returns onshore at Bolinas Lagoon just north of Stinson Beach in Marin County. It returns underwater through the linear trough of Tomales Bay which separates the Point Reyes Peninsula from the mainland, returning onshore at Fort Ross. (In this region around the San Francisco Bay Area several significant "sister faults" run more-or-less parallel, and each of these can create significantly destructive earthquakes.) From Fort Ross the northern segment continues overland, forming in part a linear valley through which the Gualala River flows. It goes back offshore at Point Arena. After that, it runs underwater along the coast until it nears Cape Mendocino, where it begins to bend to the west, terminating at the Mendocino Triple Junction.
The evolution of the San Andreas dates back to the mid Cenozoic, to about 30 Ma. At this time, a spreading center between the Pacific Plate and the Farallon Plate (which is now mostly subducted, with remnants including the Juan de Fuca Plate, Rivera Plate, Cocos Plate, and the Nazca Plate) was beginning to interact with the subduction zone on of the coast of North America. The relative motion between the Pacific and North American Plates was different from the relative motion between the Farallon and North American Plates, so when the spreading ridge was 'subducted', a new relative motion caused a new style of deformation. This style is chiefly the San Andreas Fault, but also includes a possible driver for the deformation of the Basin and Range, separation of Baja California, and rotation of the Transverse Range.
The San Andreas Fault proper, at least the Southern Segment, has only existed for about 5 Ma. The first known incarnation of the southern part of the fault was Clemens Well-Fenner-San Francisquito fault zone around 22–13 Ma. This system added the San Gabriel Fault as a primary focus of movement between 10–5 Ma. Currently, it is believed that the modern San Andreas will eventually transfer its motion toward a fault within the Eastern California Shear Zone. This complicated evolution, especially along the southern segment, is mostly caused by either the "Big Bend" and/or a difference in the motion vector between the plates and the trend of the fault(s).
All land west of the fault on the Pacific Plate is moving slowly to the northwest while all land east of the fault is moving southwest (relatively southeast as measured at the fault) under the influence of plate tectonics. The rate of slippage averages approximately 33–37 mm/year across California.
The westward component of the motion of the North American Plate creates compressional forces which are expressed as uplift in the Coast Ranges. Likewise, the northwest motion of the Pacific Plate creates significant compressional forces where the North American Plate stands in its way, creating the Transverse Ranges in Southern California, and to a lesser, but still significant, extent the Santa Cruz Mountains, site of the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989.
Studies of the relative motions of the Pacific and North American plates have shown that only about 75 percent of the motion can be accounted for in the movements of the San Andreas and its various branch faults. The rest of the motion has been found in an area east of the Sierra Nevada mountains called the Walker Lane or Eastern California Shear Zone. The reason for this is not as yet clear, although several hypotheses have been offered and research is ongoing. One hypothesis which gained some currency following the Landers Earthquake in 1992 is that the plate boundary may be shifting eastward, away from the San Andreas to the Walker Lane.
Assuming the plate boundary does not change as hypothesized, projected motion indicates that the landmass west of the San Andreas Fault, including Los Angeles, will eventually slide past San Francisco, then continue northwestward toward the Aleutian Trench, over a period of perhaps twenty million years.
(Transform fault boundaries are where tectonic plates slide past one another in horizontal movement. The San Andreas Fault of California is one of the longer transform fault boundaries known.)
In central California is the small town of Parkfield, California, which lies along the San Andreas Fault. Seismologists discovered that this section of the fault consistently produces magnitude 6.0 earthquakes about every 22 years. Following earthquakes in 1857, 1881, 1901, 1922, 1934, and 1966, scientists predicted an earthquake to hit Parkfield in 1993. This quake eventually struck in 2004 (see Parkfield earthquake). Because of this frequent activity and prediction, Parkfield has become one of the most popular spots in the world to try to capture and record large earthquakes.
In 2004, work began just north of Parkfield on the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD). The goal of SAFOD is to drill a hole nearly 3 kilometers into the Earth's crust and into the San Andreas Fault. An array of sensors will be installed to capture and record earthquakes that happen near this area.
A study completed by Yuri Fialko has demonstrated that the San Andreas fault has been stressed to a level sufficient for the next "big one," as it is commonly called, that is, an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or greater. The study also concluded that the risk of a large earthquake may be increasing faster than researchers had previously believed. Fialko also emphasized in his study that, while the San Andreas Fault had experienced massive earthquakes in 1857 at its central section and in 1906 at its northern segment (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), the southern section of the fault has not seen a similar rupture in at least 300 years.
If such an earthquake were to occur, Fialko's study stated, it would result in substantial damage to Palm Springs and a number of other cities in San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties in California, and Mexicali municipality in Baja California. Such an event would be felt throughout much of Southern California, including densely populated areas of metropolitan Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and Tijuana, Baja California.
"The information available suggests that the fault is ready for the next big earthquake but exactly when the triggering will happen and when the earthquake will occur we cannot tell," Fialko said. "It could be tomorrow or it could be 10 years or more from now," he concluded in September 2005.
Recent studies of past earthquake traces on both the northern San Andreas Fault and the southern Cascadia subduction zone indicate a correlation in time which may be evidence that quakes on the Cascadia subduction zone may have triggered most of the major quakes on the northern San Andreas during at least the past 3,000 years or so. The evidence also shows the rupture direction going from north to south in each of these time-correlated events. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake seems to have been a major exception to this correlation, however, as it was not preceded by a major Cascadia quake, and the rupture moved mostly from south to north.
The San Andreas Fault has had some notable earthquakes in historic times:
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The San Andreas Fault is a dextral (moving right) strike-slip fault. It marks the boundary between the North American Plate on the east and the Pacific Plate on the west. The fault was the cause of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It first appeared about 20 million years ago.
The San Andreas Fault is composed of a zone several miles wide which incorporates multiple strands. The main active strand currently runs on and off-shore between Cape Mendocino and the Sea of Cortez. From Cape Mendocino, it runs offshore to Tomales Bay. Then it goes southward through Bolinas Lagoon, just west of the San Francisco Peninsula, to come onshore again at Daly City, through the hills of the Peninsula. Crystal Springs reservoir is formed by the fault itself.
In the Santa Cruz mountains, it bends slightly eastward. This is the site of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The fault continues south through the historic mission at San Juan Bautista and through the town of Hollister (where active creep can be seen to offset sidewalks and even houses). The Transverse Ranges north of Santa Barbara are formed by compression. Strands of the fault snake under the Los Angeles Basin. From there it connects into the active spreading under the Sea of Cortez.
The San Andreas fault was discovered by Andrew Lawson in 1895, who famously climbed into the faulted serpentinite well where the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge was being poured. In spite of the extreme deformation of the serpentinite, Lawson declared the bridge perfectly safe. The events of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake would seem to support his conclusion: the ruptured strand was not the one he observed in the footprint of the bridge.