The Garlock Fault Zone

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The Ridgecrest earthquakes shook Californians both physically and metaphorically. After about two decades with no major quakes, it’s a wakeup call that we need to be prepared. Here in Kern County there’s another fault even closer to Bakersfield, that has recently begun to move. Scientists believe it was triggered by the Ridgecrest quakes.

17’s Maddie Janssen took a trip to a part of the Garlock fault zone where the quakes have been centered recently. It’s about 77 miles from Bakersfield in the Mojave desert. The Garlock fault zone makes up the northern edge of the Mojave and for the first time since scientists have been gathering data on it, it’s begun to move.

“The Garlock fault is the border between the Sierras and the Mojave and all these different regions. It’s a really interesting fault, and I don’t know that we really understand what’s going on with it yet.” Geologist and Seismologist Emily Fisher talks with enthusiasm about the Garlock.

It stretches 160 miles and runs parallel to the much smaller White Wolf fault that caused the 1952 earthquakes.

The Garlock borders communities like Mojave, Tehahcpai and Frazier Park, and dead ends into the San Andreas fault.

“Where it steps over is where we have seen a handful of earthquakes since Ridgecrest last year,” says Fisher. Those quakes have been small, nothing bigger than a magnitude 3.2.

They’re significant for one reason: “We haven’t seen motion on the Garlock fault in human history. I will say that human history, and as long as we have been recording, is not that long for a fault.”

Fisher says the last large quake on along the Garlock was probably several hundred years ago. But that doesn’t necessarily mean something big is coming in our lifetime. “It’s accurate to say, ‘yeah it might be past due,’ but then it could wait for 300 years.”

Scientists say the Garlock is capable of of producing a magnitude 8.0 temblor, but Fisher says that’s a worst case scenario. “It sounds really scary and it is possible, but it is unlikely, it is improbable. A lot of those calculations, you go through and say, well the fault is this long and if the whole thing ruptured at the same time, it could be this big. Usually they don’t rupture along the whole length of them, usually they’re not the big one.”

If the Garlock ruptured in a sizable quake, the communities that could be most affected would be Mojave, Johannesburg, Tehachapi and Frazier Park; they lie right along the fault zone. Bakersfield would certainly feel the shaking. And the Isabella dam could also be of concern. Fisher says that’s the first thing local officials would likely be checking on.

Fisher says it’s really hard to draw any conclusions from the recent movement along the Garlock, except to say that we should all be prepared now.

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