San Andreas Fault: Pumping of Groundwater Causes Stress, Study Says

Thursday, 15 May 2014 07:34 AM

By Michael Mullins

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The San Andreas Fault in California can be stressed by the pumping of excessive groundwater, which can also give way to small earthquakes, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

For decades, parts of the San Joaquin Valley floor has been sinking as a result of groundwater depletion while the surrounding mountains are being uplifted, producing a slight stress to the San Andreas and neighboring faults, The Associated Press reported.

"The magnitude of these stress changes is exceedingly small compared to the stresses relieved during a large earthquake," lead researcher Colin Amos, a geologist at Western Washington University, told the AP in an email.

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In an accompanying editorial to the study, Paul Lundgren of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote that the study suggests that human activities "can cause significant unclamping of the nearby San Andreas Fault system" through flexing of the Earth's crust and upper mantle.

According to the AP, the amount of groundwater lost in the Central Valley over the past century through pumping and crop irrigation is equal to the volume of Lake Tahoe.

Due to California's ongoing drought and communities using larger amounts of tap water that cannot be replenished at the same rate, researchers expect the San Andreas Fault problem to be exacerbated in the years to come, leading to valleys further subsiding and, consequently, mountain ranges across the Sierra Nevada Coast slowly rising.

While future small quakes can be attributed to the pumping of excessive groundwater, Amos added the same cannot be said for larger quakes which he noted "are likely to occur no matter what humans do."

Nearly 800 miles long, the San Andreas Fault is the most significant fault crisscrossing California, stretching from a peninsula north of San Francisco to the Salton Sea near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Having been responsible for cashing some of the most devastating earthquakes in California's history — including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that killed about 3,000 people and leveled approximately 80 percent of the city — the San Andreas Fault is said to be capable of triggering a 7.8 or greater event, which scientists warn could kill some 1,800 people and cause upwards of $200 billion in damage.

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