'A rip through the desert': photos show how California earthquakes reshaped the land
Maanvi Singh in San Francisco
Satellite images proved a clear view of the ruptures in the Mojave desert landscape.
The biggest earthquakes to hit California in two decades literally broke the desert floor. Newly released satellite images from before and after the major quakes show how the tremors jerked apart slabs of land, permanently altering the landscape.
The magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes that rattled southern California earlier this month caused water main breaks and knocked out power in the town of Ridgecrest, about 125 miles north-east of Los Angeles.
Because the Mojave desert, where the recent earthquakes were centered, is sparsely populated with few buildings or trees, the satellite images provide a clear view of the ruptures, said Ken Hudnut at the US Geological Survey.
“I like to think about the desert as an unpainted canvas,” he said. “And the earthquake tore a big rip through the desert canvas.” The animated gif shows one block of earth shifting north-west on one side of the fault, and south-east along the other side.
If a couple were standing, face to face, on either side of that fault line when the quake hit, within seconds, they would have been wrenched up to 10 feet apart, explains Zachary Ross, an assistant professor of geophysics at CalTech.
“These sorts of cracks will appear after almost any earthquake of or over a magnitude of 6.5,” said Ross. The permanent shifting of the land caused by quakes, “over many, many years, is how mountains are built”.
The dramatic visuals were created using satellite imagery from Google Earth and DigitalGlobe by earthquake geologist Sotiris Valkaniotis, who is based in Greece.
Even as the Ridgecrest area continues to shake – by Ross’s calculations, there have been more than 81,000 smaller aftershocks triggered by the most powerful temblors on 4 and 5 July – geologists have been surveying the area on foot, and from helicopters to better understand the tectonics.
The Ridgecrest quakes are unlikely to trigger an aftershock of a magnitude 7 or higher, according to USGS experts. Still, the events have put the state on edge, as seismologists urge California residents to prepare for when the worst hits.