On Saturday, the Marine Corps suspended its combat exercises just long enough for the scientists to make a three-hour helicopter survey of the immediate quake zone, but the Marines refused to allow a plane carrying Jet Propulsion Laboratory earthquake experts to fly over the base.
Two Marine ordinance experts accompanied Hudnut's USGS team to ensure that when they landed periodically to scramble on foot along the new rupture, they did not step on mines or unexploded shells.
Before being allowed to begin their survey, Hudnut, USGS research geologist Katherine Kendrick and Tom Rockwell, a San Diego State University earthquake expert, were briefed about the unusual man-made hazards in the quake zone, like materials that could look like rocks but blow off a hand.
Their flight--often skimming only a hundred yards above the rupture as it snaked across alluvial fans and then swooping up to several thousand feet to clear the nearby Bullion Mountains--was guided by base air traffic control.
"We had tremendous help from the Marines," Hudnut said.
But they forgot the daunting survival warnings in the excitement of spotting the rupture from the air.
The 7.0 Hector Mine temblor Saturday ripped a gash in the Mojave Desert almost 25 miles long on an obscure fault that had been universally considered inactive, not even worth naming on state hazard maps.
On a wild helicopter ride across the rugged, bomb-blasted terrain of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base late Saturday, federal earthquake experts discovered that the quake exerted so much muscle that it displaced the desert floor on either side of the strike-slip fault up to 15 feet. The fourth largest earthquake in Southern California this century etched a spider's web of new cracks that ran for miles through ancient lava flows, creekbeds and ridges.
The rupture appeared to be centered on the dry bed of Lavic Lake, earthquake experts said Sunday.
When it struck at 2:46 a.m. Saturday, it caught thousands of U.S. Marines in the middle of three weeks of live-fire combat maneuvers in this remote region of the Mojave Desert. The quake tossed heavy artillery pieces like toys and bounced automatic weapons helter-skelter across the desert hardscrabble.
Kenneth Hudnut, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey who led the inspection team through the quake zone, said Sunday the surface rupture was beyond his "wildest expectations"--twice as extensive as he would have anticipated from a quake of this magnitude.
"Suddenly all at once we saw this big set of fractures running across the desert. All of us realized we were right on it and it was big," Hudnut said.
The fault--now unofficially christened the Lavic Lake fault--was a sobering discovery, several earthquake experts said.
It means that for the second time in less than a decade a major earthquake in or near the metropolitan Los Angeles region has occurred along faults that were overlooked or thought to pose no danger.
The 1994 Northridge earthquake occurred on a hidden blind thrust fault that had not entered into official hazard estimates until it revealed itself in a brutal 6.7 shock that killed 57 people and caused $40 billion in damages.
On Saturday, an officially inactive fault suddenly came to life.
"We have to consider faults to be a potential hazard even if it appears to us to be inactive," Hudnut said.
Younger Fault Than Most
Based on a preliminary analysis, the fault appears to be much younger than many of the more well-known fractures that help the mammoth San Andreas fault vent the titanic tectonic stresses building up in Southern California. It showed almost no evidence of activity in the past several thousand years.
"Here we have a minor fault producing a major quake, which is disturbing," said USGS seismologist Ross Stein in Menlo Park. "But it occurred on a relatively young fault. This has got to be a very rare earthquake."
Thomas Henyey, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC, said: "It is not a fault one would have suspected. This one at this magnitude in this area was a bit surprising," in part because it was in the same region rocked by the powerful Landers earthquake in 1992.
It has some scientists wondering about the pattern of major Southern California earthquakes in recent years. Some of the largest quakes appear to cluster together as if--across many miles and many years--they may trigger each other.
Effects of Landers Quake
Like major quakes at Big Bear and Joshua Tree in 1992, the Hector Mine quake struck in a zone of elevated seismic stress caused by the 7.3 Landers earthquake. It is not considered an aftershock of the Landers quake, however, but a separate temblor that is triggering a cascade of aftershocks on its own.
"This triggering from one earthquake to the next is important in understanding earthquake behavior," said Stein. "Seven years after Landers, another quake pops off and it pops off in a region brought closer to failure by the Landers quake."