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Minor Quakes Elsewhere Tied to Alaska Temblor

Seismic instruments record increased activity as far away as California. Link with movement in volcanic zones is possible, scientists say.

November 17, 2002|Andrew Bridges | Associated Press Writer

The magnitude 7.9 earthquake that rocked Alaska on Nov. 3 has lent new credence to the theory that large temblors can trigger seismic activity even thousands of miles away.

Immediately after the earthquake, the largest to strike on land since the 1906 quake that leveled most of San Francisco, seismic instruments recorded increased activity as far away as California. There, swarms of tiny temblors shook the Geysers, north of San Francisco, and Long Valley, in the eastern Sierra.

Similar minor quakes were recorded at Washington's Mt. Rainier and in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, all volcanic areas.

Most seismologists agree that the quakes were triggered by the temblor on Alaska's Denali fault.

"There can't be any question at this point that the phenomenon does occur and probably more frequently than we thought before," said David Hill, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist.

It was 1992's magnitude 7.3 Landers earthquake in the desert east of Los Angeles that first suggested to seismologists that remotely triggered quakes were possible.

In the minutes, hours and days after that quake, instruments recorded upticks in seismic activity near Lassen Peak, Long Valley, the Geysers and Little Skull Mountain in Nevada.

Before Landers, which was among the first large earthquakes to strike in the era of modern seismic instruments, seismologists could not definitively link temblors that struck in close succession but were separated by large distances.

In California, earthquakes come nearly every minute of every day; that any two should strike in different locations within the state at the same time is usually no more than mere coincidence.

"There's one problem we face, and that's people like to correlate things," said David Wald, USGS seismologist. "People like to see patterns."

Now with more and better instruments deployed in the field, seismologists can discern any change in the background levels of seismic activity that might indicate earthquakes triggered by distant, larger quakes.

Some still do not accept the theory that they trigger one another, however.

"So what, there are earthquakes all the time, right? You'd be hard-pressed to tie it to that," said Christopher Scholz of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Scholz does allow that earthquakes can trigger seismic activity in volcanic zones, as was the case with the Denali quake.

Since Landers, seismologists have pored over historical records, looking for accounts of past earthquakes that may have triggered other temblors, even in nonvolcanic areas.

Susan Hough, USGS seismologist, said the three strong earthquakes that hit New Madrid, Mo., in the winter of 1811-12 triggered quakes as far away as northern Kentucky -- hardly a volcanic region.

"There is compelling evidence that it's happened in areas that are not volcanic," Hough said.

More recently, Wald and student Aron Meltzner spent more than a year studying newspaper accounts from the time of the April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake.

They found what they called a "marked clustering" of earthquakes in the West in the 48 hours after the estimated magnitude 7.8 quake.

They attribute the change to aftershocks and triggered quakes. (The difference between the two is largely one of distance -- and semantics, seismologists said.)

Among them were earthquakes reported in Oregon, Arizona and Southern California, including an estimated magnitude 5 quake that struck off the Los Angeles coast on April 19, 1906.

"There are clear effects at great distances from these earthquakes," Wald said of those of large magnitude.

How they trigger other quakes remains unclear, although the apparent tie to volcanic areas is a clue, said Joan Gomberg, USGS seismologist.

"These volcanic areas seem to be more sensitive, for whatever reasons," Gomberg said.

Among the theories is that the shaking redistributes bubbles of gas trapped in the magma underlying volcanic regions, Gomberg said.

Seismologists caution that triggered earthquakes seem to occur only in areas that are already seismically active.

"They're already primed in some sense for producing earthquakes," Hill said.

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