Should Californians Stress Out About the New Earthquake Advisory?

Here’s what you need to know

San Bernardino
San Bernardino County is among those included in the earthquake alert. Marie (Flickr/Creative Commons)

It’s enough to make any Californian’s hair stand on end: As UPI reports, California officials have issued an earthquake advisory warning of upcoming quakes along the state’s notorious San Andreas Fault. The news puts people in Ventura, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles, Kern and Imperial Counties on alert for what UPI calls a “major” quake. But is the warning, which has made a big splash on social media and TV news, reason to panic?

Probably not: According to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which released the reminder, the likelihood of an earthquake of a magnitude 4.3 or higher along the San Andreas fault in the next week may be 0.03 to one percent greater than usual.

The warning was issued after a swarm of nearly 200 small temblors along the San Andreas fault near the Salton Sea. As Shelby Grad writes for The Los Angeles Times, such quake swarms are common in the area, as the sea sits at the convergence of several faults and is located above a thin, shifting piece of Earth’s crust that’s always on the move.

Though some hypotheses say that a series of small quakes means bigger ones to come, swarms come and go without causing a quake more often than not, according to the University of California at Berkeley’s Seismo Blog. In this case, experts agree despite the warning: USGS experts say it’s likely nothing else will occur, writes Colin Atagi for The Desert Sun 

The warning comes just a day after Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation expanding California’s early-warning system. As David Gorn reports for KPCC, the new system could give residents up to a minute’s warning if a large quake shakes the San Andreas fault—a system similar to that which exists in earthquake-prone Japan and Mexico. However, the warning system’s website notes that it will only provide notices after an earthquake begins. That means that people farther away from the quake’s point of origin are likely not to see much benefit. If the quake is large, however, it will affect a larger area, giving people farther away more time to prepare.

It always makes sense to prep for an earthquake, as is being done with a new mobile earthquake simulator for residents of San Bernardino. But ultimately, writes the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s impossible for scientists to predict quakes themselves.

“Neither the USGS nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake,” the agency writes on its website. “They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.” Simple geology makes another big earthquake along the San Andreas fault all but inevitable—but until it actually happens, awareness, preparedness and probabilities are all anyone has to go on.