The San Andreas fault is moving more than just back and forth. According to a new study, several sections of land alongside the giant earth crack are moving up or down by a three to five millimeters every year.

Fault behavior

Scientists have a basic understanding of why and how the San Andreas fault line moves horizontally. What remains more mysterious is the vertical motion. Multiple forces, like changing groundwater levels, can influence the rise and fall of land.

The study revealed that the up and down motion occurred in segments of land about 125 miles wide.

California counties Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and part of San Bernardino are rising. At the same time, Orange and San Diego counties are falling. This “seismic strain” may one day lead to a huge California earthquake, the researchers wrote.

Jumbled information

To measure the vertical movement, scientists used a wide array of GPS sensors. While the up and down motion has been showing up in the data for years, it has been mostly “ignored” because the information was cluttered with other data, said Samuel Howell, lead author of the study.

Prediction of future earthquake?

Howell and his team wrote a computer program that specifically excluded data obtained from vertical land movement from non-seismic factors.

They successfully found a way to measure a “broad, large-scale signal” and determine a “smooth trend.” Now that scientists are paying more attention to this slow and subtle movement, they hope to get a better understanding of what happens before a significant seismic event. However, the data will not necessarily help predict when and where the next huge earthquake will strike, according to Howell.

Several regions of San Andreas, California’s longest and most dangerous fault line, have not moved in more than 150 years. The area between Monterey County and Imperial County has been building stress for nearly three centuries and seismologists are concerned the land is ready to snap. The average time frame for a large earthquake along the southern San Andreas is once every 150 years.

Yet, seismic activity varies and remains unpredictable, so there is no telling precisely when the next big one will hit.

Famous fault system

Running more than 800 miles, the San Andreas fault is a region on the earth’s surface where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates grind against each other. The system is made up of several smaller faults that wind their way through California from the Mendocino Coast to the Salton Sea.

The San Andreas fault study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience. Also involved in the report were Bridget Smith-Konter at the University of Hawaii; Xiaopeng Tong of the University of Washington; and David Sandwell from the University of California.

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