Scientists studying the San Andreas fault in California say they will soon be able to monitor seismic activity from deep inside Earth’s crust so they can identify patterns that might foreshadow a major quake.
The Stanford-U.S. Geological Survey project is the first time geologists have dug deep below Earth’s surface to within tens of yards (meters) of an active fault zone to study earthquakes, Stanford University geologist Mark Zoback said at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
“We’ve never been inside the fault zone before,” said William Ellsworth, a principal investigator on the project for the U.S. Geological Survey. “The goal has been to understand the basic mechanics of faults,” he said.
Geologists who have been analyzing earthquakes along the San Andreas fault near Parkfield in central California told the scientific conference on Tuesday that they plan to install a number of monitoring devices near the fault zone. Preliminary monitoring is set to begin in January.
“The instruments will be detecting what is occurring exactly in the fault zone before, during and after” an earthquake, Zoback said.
The San Andreas fault, which triggered the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the deadly fires that followed, runs from the Southern California desert to northern California and marks the boundary of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.
The monitoring instruments, part of a five-year, $20 million project by the university and the USGS, will be installed 1.5 to 2 miles (2 to 3 kilometers) underground in a portion of the San Andreas fault zone that triggered several moderate quakes of about magnitude 6 from 1857 to 1966. Drilling for the project began in 2004.
“This is not an earthquake prediction instrument,” Zoback said. “We are testing whether these types of earthquakes on this particular fault are predictable.”
Scientists have long used seismographs linked to monitors on Earth’s surface to measure ground waves during an earthquake, but this is the first time the monitors will be embedded deep within an active fault, Zoback said.