Concern over the San Andreas Fault Rises as Earthquake Toll Devastates Turkey-Syria

Hafsa Khader, Writer

California earthquake measures are not implemented enough, especially in schools, Cameron Fetter, according to Southern California Earthquake Center Geoscience Educator. Most people, when faced with an earthquake, “resort to scrambling outside or getting in a doorway, both of which actually make you more susceptible to injury.” 

When 50 randomly-selected students at Vista del Lago High School were asked, “How would you respond to an earthquake?” Most replied with “get outside” or ”take cover” while others admitted they weren’t sure. 

Most students believe that the ceilings themselves would collapse, contrary to Fetter’s explanation. “The notion of getting under our desks is to protect us from smaller objects that could hurt us, which is going to be the most probable case for most California schools.”

However, most students don’t understand how desks would provide ample safety. “We’re supposed to believe that desks can protect us from a whole ceiling falling, but they’d break if someone just sits on it,” said one Vista freshman through a survey.

While seismologists find it unlikely for entire buildings to collapse in the event of an earthquake, Fetter explains that even in the highly unlikely scenario in which an entire ceiling collapses, desks will have an evenly distributed impact. “A desk break[ing] from someone sitting on it [is]… because their weight is likely concentrated on the center of the table, causing it to bend inwards and force the supports apart, making it cave in. In a full ceiling collapse, you most likely won’t get that central concentration of weight that splits the desk apart.”

An entire building collapse is unlikely due to the strength of the fault itself, California’s building codes, and the area the fault will impact. 

The San Andreas fault is a “strike-slip” fault and is among the largest faults in the world, stretching 800 miles long from the Balton Sea to Cape Mendocino. Despite its daunting size, scientists agree that the San Andreas fault can’t physically generate an earthquake larger than a magnitude of 8.2, “simply because no sections of the fault are long enough to host something larger,” said Fetter. 

But an 8.2 earthquake is still very powerful– essentially strong enough to destroy areas near the epicenter. The San Andreas also cuts through the majority of California’s major cities like San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles. For instance, the Feb. 6 earthquake in Turkey-Syria was a magnitude of 7.8, lower than the proposed earthquake size for the San Andreas fault.

According to Fetter, The San Andreas fault, East Anatolian fault, and Turkey-Syria Earthquake fault are strike-slip faults. While the two do move in opposite directions, both move laterally. Moreover, any segment of the San Andreas is capable of creating an earthquake of similar magnitude.

The main differences between the two instances are the economic losses and general devastation. It’s highly unlikely that California will see a death toll close to the Turkey-Syria earthquake due to our infrastructure. The main concern is directed at water levies, dams, and other water reservoirs.

Most California buildings have been given seismic retrofitting but still may be unstable in the event of an earthquake. Currently, California building codes require buildings to survive earthquakes of up to 7.0 magnitude, according to the Seismic Zone 4 Requirements. However, “survivable” doesn’t necessarily mean “functional.” They simply need to remain standing for civilians to escape safely.

Compared to the Turkey-Syria situation, California will not suffer nearly as high of a toll but it will still be a costlier and deadlier natural disaster for the US. Additionally, some low-income areas in Los Angeles’ skid row, the Bay Area, and other low-income areas are extremely vulnerable. 

Additionally, “The San Andreas fault could… kill anywhere from 3,000 to 18,000 people, depending on when and where the quake strikes,” said Fetter. “It’s very possible that in the case of a 7.8, California’s economic losses would be equivalent or possibly greater than that of Turkey and Syria.”

Despite this, Northern and Central California will probably be in the clear. The likelihood of the entire fault’s rupture is slim to none, and most earthquakes are one of three major segments created by scientists whilst studying past earthquakes. “The three sections [of the San Andreas fault] are the Northern Segment (last event in 1906), The Central Segment (last event in 1857), and the Southern Segment (last event in 1713). Due to this, scientists expect the Southern Segment to host the next major San Andreas earthquake,” said Fetter. 

Even if the Northern Segment were to rupture, “Sacramento lies well over 80 miles away from the San Andreas fault,” Fetter states.  “The most intense shaking would have tapered off by the time it reaches Sacramento. Shaking would still be a bit more on the stronger side, but it wouldn’t be the same intense shaking that San Francisco or San Jose might have experienced since they are atop the San Andreas fault zone.”

Sacramento’s experience with earthquakes, a 7.8 earthquake in 1906, occurred in the Northern Segment; it cracked foundations, knocked items off shelves, and caused the occasional chimney to topple. Even without any seismic retrofitting, the city was left considerably better than San Francisco and San Jose.

Regardless, students are still unaware of how to act during an earthquake. Vista del Lago itself doesn’t even participate in earthquake drills. The simple phrase, “drop, cover, and hold on” could save lives and numerous trips to the hospital in the future. As Fetter had explained, Total building collapse will not be the end result, and California buildings will survive these quakes. “It’s what could fall on you in the building that can get you seriously injured,” said Fetter.

California may have a stronger infrastructure, a more sustainable environment, and more economic stability, but its earthquakes are still a dangerous force. Natural disasters are prone to occur afterward as well, with countless droughts and other shortages resulting from the damage.

“Earthquake safety is often brushed aside in California,” said Fetter, “but seeing the extent of the disaster in Turkey should be a strong reminder for us to make sure we are preparing ourselves for our own quakes.”