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Geologists have drilled into the San Andreas Fault

Understanding earthquakes depend on understanding tectonic boundary movements. California based San Andreas fault studies provide new data.

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For the first time, geologists have drilled into the San Andreas Fault.

Never before have so-called "cores" from deep inside an actively moving tectonic boundary been available to study. Now, scientists hope to answer long-standing questions about the fault's composition and properties. Altogether, the geologists retrieved 135 feet of 4-inch diameter rock cores weighing roughly 1 ton. They were hauled to the surface through a borehole measuring more than 2.5 miles long.

Mark Zoback is one of three co-principal investigators of the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD) project, which is establishing the world's first underground earthquake observatory. William Ellsworth and Steve Hickman, geophysicists with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., are the other co-principal investigators.

SAFOD, which first broke ground in 2004, is a major research component of EarthScope, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program to investigate the forces that shape the North American continent and the physical processes controlling earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

"This is a tremendously exciting discovery," said Kaye Shedlock, EarthScope program director at NSF. "Obtaining cores from the actively slipping San Andreas Fault is unprecedented and will allow for far-reaching, transformative research and discoveries."

"To an earthquake scientist, these cores are like the Apollo moon rocks," Hickman said. "Scientists from around the world are anxious to get their hands on them in the hope that they can help solve the mystery of how this major, active plate boundary works."

Drilling through the fault was completed in 2005. Next, the science team will install a host of seismic instruments in the 2.5-mile-long borehole that runs from the Pacific plate on the west side of the fault into the North American plate on the east. By placing sensors next to a zone that has been the source of many small quakes, scientists will be able to observe the earthquake generation process in unprecedented ways.

Studying the San Andreas Fault is important because, as Zoback said, "the really big earthquakes occur on plate boundaries like the San Andreas Fault."

The SAFOD site, located about 23 miles northeast of Paso Robles near the tiny town of Parkfield, sits on a particularly active section of the fault that moves regularly. But it does not produce large earthquakes.

Instead, it moves in modest increments by a process called creep, in which the two sides of the fault slide slowly past one another, accompanied by occasional small quakes, most of which are not felt at the surface.

One of the big questions the researchers are working to answer is how, when most of the fault moves in violent, episodic upheavals, there can be a section where the same massive tectonic plates seem, by comparison, to gently tiptoe past each other.

"There have been many theories about why the San Andreas Fault slides along so easily, none of which could be tested directly until now," Hickman said. Some posit the presence of especially slippery clays, called smectites. Others suggest there may be water along the fault plane, lubricating the surface. Still others note the presence of a mineral called serpentine exposed in several places along the surface trace of the fault, which--if it existed at depth--could both weaken the fault and cause it to creep.

The only way to know what role serpentine, talc or other minerals play in controlling the behavior of the San Andreas Fault is to study the SAFOD core samples in the laboratory.


Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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