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How the Salton Sea may be delaying California’s next big earthquake

For years, environmental and medical leaders have talked about the dangers of the Salton Sea drying up. The receding shoreline exposes toxic playa, creating harmful air quality that can spread to the surrounding Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley areas.

But now, a new study from UC San Diego Scripps and San Diego State University is showing how the drying of the Salton Sea may​ have been keeping residents safe by staving off California's next massive earthquake, often called "The Big One." The study has linked the volume of water to the weight put on the earth's crust as well as subsequent earthquake triggers; geological computer modeling connects the lack of water to the delay of the long overdue, catastrophic earthquake that seismologists have been warning about. 

"We think in part, one of the reasons why it's been so long since the last major earthquake is that this area of the Salton trough region has not filled with water in the kind of volumes that we saw in the historic past of Ancient Lake Cahuilla here," said Matthew Weingarten, an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at San Diego State University.

Weingarten is one of four authors behind this study showing major earthquakes over the last thousand years have happened when the Salton Sea has been full. 

But, to be clear, the current Salton Sea looks much different than the lake in years past. This body of water has been filled, then dried up, then filled again multiple times throughout history from Colorado River flooding. In its previous iterations, the Salton Sea was called Ancient Lake Cahuilla and was about six times the size of the Salton Sea today, which would have stretched from the Palm Desert area to just past the border of Mexico. According to the researchers, Ancient Lake Cahuilla would have been filled with 40 times the amount of water as what we see today. 

"I think you can think of the modern day Salton Sea is kind of a drop in the bucket," said Weingarten.

Advanced computer modeling now shows when the Salton Sea was at its fullest, the massive weight of the water actually bent the surrounding crust, with water worming its way deep underground. This phenomenon affects the Southern San Andreas fault, increasing the chance for massive ruptures and intense earthquakes. 

"You can think of taking like a plastic ruler between your hands and pushing your two hands together, and it bends the ruler that changes the stresses on the fault because the fault is like a crack in the ground," Weingarten said.

It would appear to be a double-edged sword, stuck in tectonic stone. A shrinking Salton Sea means harmful air quality for the surrounding areas. But a robust, significantly fuller Salton Sea means increasing the chances of the big one. 

Except -- Salton Sea experts say they're not too worried because of our ongoing drought.

"We're going into the 22nd year of drought of the Colorado River. And that is going to pretty much limit the amount of water flowing into the Salton Sea, so...too much water shouldn't be the concern right now," said Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea Program Director of Audubon.

What seismologists say we do need to be concerned about is the big one. Historical records show that a major earthquake happens every 180 years or so, but according to the study authors, there hasn't been a severe quake in California in the last 300 years. And since the Coachella Valley is so close to the Southern San Andreas fault, officials are advising desert residents to be especially prepared, which means having an earthquake emergency kit with items like water and food for three days, a flashlight with batteries kept separately to prevent corrosion, an emergency radio, a whistle, a local map, and more.

It's a reminder that what man does has an impact on nature, which in turn, comes back to man. It's why finding a balanced solution to the lake is crucial to the health of the Coachella Valley and beyond.

News Channel 3 Morning Anchor Angela Chen has been covering the issues surrounding the Salton Sea for years, including the environmental and health aspects of the looming ecological disaster.

Check out the Emmy award-winning Troubled Waters: The Salton Sea Project

  • Part 1: Paradise Lost - Angela looks back at the history of the Salton Sea. Find out its connection to Spanish explorers, and how it went from one of the most popular destinations to abandoned and on the verge of disaster
  • Check Out Part 2- Toxic Exposure: Angela goes in-depth on the history of toxic outbreaks at the Salton Sea and its connection to the current health issues of those who live near the lake
  • Part 3: A Lake Languished - Angela look at the millions spent over the years to save the Salton Sea and why there is so little progress to show for it

Part 4: Salton Sea Plea - There are massive environmental problems at the Salton Sea, but after decades of neglect, could the lake's unique location be part of the solution in saving it? Angela highlights the movement happening to save the lake

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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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