Curved rock etchings reveal which way dangerous faults ruptured—and how they might again

by P. Voosen, Sep 23, 2020 in AAAS Science

Many of the world’s most dangerous earthquake faults are a silent menace: They have not ruptured in more than a century. To gauge the hazard they pose to buildings and people, geologists cannot rely on the record of recent strikes, captured by seismometers. Instead, they must figure out how the faults behaved in the past by looking for clues in the rocks themselves, including slickenlines, scour marks along the exposed rock face of a fault that can indicate how much it slipped in past earthquakes.

Earthquakes don’t happen all at once. Rather, the slip between rocks begins at one spot on the face of the fault—the hypocenter—and travels along it, like a zipper being unzipped. As the rupture advances, the earthquake waves it generates pile up and intensify, like the siren of an approaching ambulance. Los Angeles lies at the northern terminus of the southern San Andreas fault, Ampuero notes. “If it breaks north, toward LA, that would be pretty bad.”