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Earthquake Alert: Are California, Yellowstone 'Big Ones' Closer?

By    |   Monday, 31 March 2014 09:47 AM

A recent series of earthquakes and aftershocks in California and the biggest tremor in more than 30 years over Yellowstone Park's super-volcano have had experts talking about long-dreaded "big ones." Tuesday's massive 8.2 quake in Chile adds to the jitters.

About 150 aftershocks, including one of magnitude-4.1, have been felt since Friday night's 5.1 quake in Southern California.

On Sunday, Yellowstone National Park was struck by a magnitude 4.8 earthquake, the biggest recorded there since February 1980. The park sits atop one of the world's largest super-volcanoes, but so far there was no indication the seismic activity was related to an eruption.

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On Tuesday, a deadly earthquake at a monster  8.2 magnitude struck off the coast of northern Chile, triggering a tsunami that pounded the shore with 2-meter-tall waves. Thousands fled as the government evacuated the country's northern coast.
In California, experts say a bigger earthquake along the lesser-known fault under the moderate tremor on Friday could do more damage to the region than a long-dreaded "Big One" from the more famous San Andreas Fault, according to The Associated Press.

The Puente Hills thrust fault, which brought Friday night's magnitude-5.1 quake centered in La Habra and well over 100 aftershocks by Sunday, stretches from northern Orange County under downtown Los Angeles into Hollywood — a heavily populated swath of the Los Angeles area.

A magnitude-7.5 earthquake along that fault could prove more catastrophic than one along the San Andreas, which runs along the outskirts of metropolitan Southern California, seismologists said.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that such a quake along the Puente Hills fault could kill 3,000 to 18,000 people and cause up to $250 billion in damage. In contrast, a larger magnitude 8 quake along the San Andreas would cause an estimated 1,800 deaths.

In 1987, the fault caused the Whittier Narrows earthquake. Still considered moderate at magnitude 5.9, that quake killed eight people and did more than $350 million in damage.

Part of the problem with the potential damage is that the fault runs near so many vulnerable older buildings, many made of concrete, in downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. And because the fault, discovered in 1999, is horizontal, heavy reverberations are likely to be felt over a wide area.

The shaking from a 7.5 quake in the center of urban Los Angeles could be so intense it would lift heavy objects in the air, like the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in Northern California, where the shaking was so bad "we found an upside-down grand piano," USGS seismologist Lucy Jones told the Los Angeles Times.

That would "hit all of downtown," Jones said. "And everywhere from La Habra to Hollywood."

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About 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes strike Yellowstone each year, according to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, a research partnership of the park, the University of Utah and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The ancient super-volcano, or caldera, that lies beneath the surface of the park was discovered by scientists in recent years to be 2.5 times larger than previously thought, measured at 30 miles wide, according to Reuters.

Sunday's quake occurred near the center of an area of ground uplift that geologists have been tracking for several months, University of Utah seismologists said. Elevated seismic activity was also found in the area during a previous period of uplift from 1996 to 2003.

The recent spike in earthquake activity at Yellowstone is linked to the uplift, which in turn is caused by the upward movement of molten rock beneath the Earth's crust, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Fortunately, there was no indication that the recent seismic activity signaled an impending eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, scientists said.

Researchers with the observatory have said in the past that catastrophic eruptions by the super-volcano are unlikely for tens of thousands of years, though less extreme lava releases could occur within thousands of years.

The super-volcano's most cataclysmic eruption occurred 2 million years ago, covering half of North America with ash and killing prehistoric animals as far as away as modern-day Nebraska, according to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Heat from a vast chamber of molten rock beneath the caldera fuels the park's famous geothermal features, including Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone scientists say.

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A recent series of earthquakes and aftershocks in California and the biggest tremor in more than 30 years over Yellowstone Park's super-volcano have had experts talking about long-dreaded "big ones." Tuesday's massive 8.2 quake in Chile adds to the jitters.
Monday, 31 March 2014 09:47 AM
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