Elastic Rebound Theory and San Andreas Fault Earthquakes
Excerpt from a USGS and The Bay Area Earthquake Alliance video by Stephen M. Wessells.
This short video excerpt is from a USGS/Bay Area Earthquake Alliance produced television program "Shock
Waves: 100 Years After the 1906 Earthquake". This specific segment describes some of the history behind
our modern understanding of the earthquake process. The program received numerous industry awards and was
nominated for a regional Emmy Award in the Bay area. It aired twice on KPIX CBS5 and its affiliate station
around the time of the April 18, 2006, 100 year anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake.
This video gives an excellent description of the "elastic rebound theory" and explains how it applies to
earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault.
Host, Dana King:
What are the underlying processes of the Earth?
The Earthquake Commission found that the San Andreas Fault shifted along this length of more than
200 miles. How is that possible? How could the Earth have shifted suddenly over such a great distance?
There had been no earthquake that had been seen like this before. And it was a question that
confounded scientists until the development of Plate Tectonics Theory in the 1960's.
Plate Tectonics is the overall model of how different parts of the Earth's crust are moving relative to
each other. And the crust of the Earth is broken up into major plates they slide past each other and they
move on faults.
The San Andreas Fault is the major fault zone helping slide the North American
Plate past the Pacific Plate. And this movement occurs at about 2 and 1/2 inches
a year. It doesn't sound like very much but over geologic time it builds up into a
lot of slip that has to be accommodated.
Host, Dana King:
These great strides in understanding earthquake process track
directly back to the 1908 Lawson Report.
Perhaps one of the most important results that came out of this
study was the development of Harry Fielding Reid's Theory of Elastic Rebound.
He used the information collected from land surveys that allowed him to measure
the changes in surface that had been caused by the earthquake. This was
something that had been understood in rough form before the earthquake but he
developed the first scientific theory about how forces accumulate along faults
only to be released in earthquakes. We call this "The Elastic Rebound Theory"
and it's the foundation really of our modern understanding of the earthquake process.
If you can think of the crust as a slab of rubber and you're grabbing the
rubber from the two sides and moving it past each other if the fault itself were
Teflon the rubber would just move by and never be distorted. But, because the
fault has friction then the rubber gets distorted and stresses are built up on that
So, that process is very very slow. An inch a year, and suddenly at the
time of the earthquake a very small piece of that highly fractioned surface is going
to let go and as it does so it starts slipping. And in the space of a few seconds that
slippage speeds up from an inch a year to 5000 miles an hour. And that process
then tears down the fault at these high speeds until it comes to a stuck patch
where it can hang there for several seconds. If it's going to be a large earthquake
it's going to burst through, speed up again to 5000 miles an hour and go flying
into the next knot in the piece of wood if you like. Hang there and then burst through again.
In parts of California we just really have the San Andreas Fault.
It's the major feature. But, in places like the Bay area, the fault splays; it's like the
trunk of a tree. Comes into the Bay area, big branches come out; these are the
major faults like the San Gregorio and the San Andreas and the Hayward and
Rodgers Creek. The Calaveras, the Concord-Green Valley. And they accommodate
most of the movement and then even little faults come off of them and they're
like smaller twigs. Each different sized fault produces different sized earthquakes
and here in the Bay area we have many faults of different sizes spread out across the entire region.
Mary Lou Zoback:
Each of those faults could produce a damaging earthquake, in fact taken together; we think a
damaging earthquake is nearly twice as likely to happen as not over the next 30 years.
Host, Dana King:
Earthquake information for the Bay area, California and worldwide QUAKE dot USGS dot GOV.
Menu items link to things like "Did-You-Feel-IT?" Shake Maps and the earthquake and information preparedness
handbook "Putting Down Roots". Science now gives us all a way to clearly see
and understand the earthquake risk in our own lives.
A Production of: USGS and The Bay Area Earthquake Alliance
Directed & Produced by: Stephen M. Wessells
Host: Dana King, KPIX, CBS5, San Francisco
Written by: Donna Matrazzo
Primary Camera: Haydon Lane
Editing: Haydon Lane and Stephen M. Wessells
Audio: Sandy Hain
On Camera Interviews: Bill Ellsworth, David Schwartz, Ross Stein, Mary Lou Zoback
Surveyors: Mt. Diablo Surveyors Historical Society, Michael J. Foley, Peter Friedman, Paul Lamoreaux, Cristino De La Paz
This short excerpt is from a USGS/Bay Area Earthquake Alliance produced television program "Shock Waves: 100 Years After the 1906 Earthquake". This specific segment describes some of the history behind our modern understanding of the earthquake process. The program received numerous industry awards and was nominated for a regional Emmy Award in the Bay area. It aired twice on KPIX CBS5 and its affiliate station around the time of the April 18, 2006, 100 year anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake. The full length video is available at the USGS website.