Experts: Expect big Calif. quake by 2037

California faces an almost certain risk of being rocked by a strong earthquake by 2037, scientists said Monday in the first statewide temblor forecast.

New calculations reveal there is a 99.7% chance a magnitude 6.7 quake or larger will strike in the next 30 years. The odds of such an event are higher in Southern California than Northern California, 97% versus 93%.

The last time a jolt this size rattled California was the 1994 Northridge disaster, which killed 72 people, injured more than 9,000 and caused $25 billion in damage.

"It basically guarantees it's going to happen," said Ned Field, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena and lead author of the report.

California is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. More than 300 faults crisscross the state, which sits atop two of Earth's major tectonic plates, the Pacific and North American plates. About 10,000 quakes each year rattle Southern California alone, although most of them are too small to be felt.

The analysis is the first comprehensive effort by the USGS, Southern California Earthquake Center and California Geological Survey to calculate earthquake probabilities for the entire state using newly available data. Previous quake probabilities focused on specific regions and used various methodologies that made it difficult to compare.

For example, a 2003 report found the San Francisco Bay Area faced a 62% chance of being struck by a magnitude 6.7 quake by 2032. The new study increased the likelihood slightly to 63% by 2037. For the Los Angeles Basin, the probability is higher at 67%. There is no past comparison for the Los Angeles area.

Scientists still cannot predict exactly where in the state such a quake will occur or when. But they say the analysis should be a wake-up call for residents to prepare for a natural disaster in earthquake country.

Knowing the likelihood of a strong earthquake is the first step in allowing scientists to draw up hazard maps that show the severity of ground shaking to an area. The information can also help with updating building codes and emergency plans and setting earthquake insurance rates.

"A big earthquake can happen tomorrow or it can happen 10 years from now," said Tom Jordan, director of SCEC headquartered at the University of Southern California, who was part of the research.

Of all the faults in the state, the southern San Andreas, which runs from Parkfield to the Salton Sea, appears most primed to break, scientists found. There is a 59% chance in the next three decades that a Northridge-size quake will occur on the fault compared to 21% for the northern section.

The northern San Andreas produced the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a recent disaster in geologic time compared to the southernmost segment, which has not popped in more than three centuries.

Scientists are also concerned about the Hayward and San Jacinto faults, which have a 31% chance of producing a Northridge-size temblor in the next 30 years. The Hayward fault runs through densely populated cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The San Jacinto fault bisects the fast-growing city of San Bernardino.

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