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Japan 8.9: Could it Happen in Los Angeles?

Could an earthquake like yesterday's 8.9 in Japan happen in Los Angeles?

The short answer is no. But we could come close.

We talked to USC's Jean-Pierre Bardet, a professor of civil engineering and a big-time quake expert, today. Here's what he says:

-L.A. probably won't ever be in for an 8.9 like Japan saw because we don't have a subduction zone nearby "where plates meet face to face and one goes up one goes down," which was the case in Japan. Our scariest fault is the San Andreas, which is a "strike slip" situation where one plate goes north and the other goes south. That kind of situation doesn't seem likely to produce an 8.9, but ...

-L.A. could see a big one north of 8, Bardet says, if the San Andreas got multiple ruptures over a wide area at the same time, which is possible.

The San Andreas fault.
The San Andreas fault.
David K. Lynch

-Could we see a resulting tsunami like the one that devastated Japan. Not likely, but possible. Here's the deal:

While we don't have an offshore subduction zone like Japan's, a big one on the San Andreas fault (which runs east of Los Angeles) could cause submarine landslides that could trigger good sized surges.

-Will the Japan quake trigger shakers here? Nobody knows. Bardet says Japan's temblor moved a plate 8 feet toward us.

"When you have big quakes like that they do effect the global equilibrium the global balance," he said. "Will they effect us California? I don't know."

The good news is that we will learn a lot from such a large (top 5 in modern history) quake happening in a developed nation with lots of data being recorded.

"This is the quake that will produce the largest amount of data" to date, Bardet says. "We have an opportunity to draw lessons to make L.A. a safer city."


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