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A field guide to the central, creeping section of the San Andreas fault and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth

January 1, 2006

This field trip is along the central section of the San Andreas fault and consists of eight stops that illustrate surface evidence of faulting, in general, and features associated with active fault creep, in particular. Fault creep is slippage along a fault that occurs either in association with small-magnitude earthquakes or without any associated large-magnitude earthquakes. Another aspect of the trip is to highlight where there are multiple fault traces along this section of the San Andreas fault zone in order to gain a better understanding of plate-boundary processes.

The first stop is along the Calaveras fault, part of the San Andreas fault system, at a location where evidence of active fault creep is abundant and readily accessible. The stops that follow are along the San Andreas fault and at convenient locations to present and discuss rock types juxtaposed across the fault that have been transported tens to hundreds of kilometers by right-lateral motion along the San Andreas fault. Stops 6 and 7 are examples of recent studies of different aspects of the fault: drilling into the fault at the depth of repeating magnitude (M) 2 earthquakes with the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD) and the geological, geophysical, and seismological study of M 6 earthquakes near the town of Parkfield.

Along with the eight official stops on this field trip are 12 “rolling stops”—sites of geologic interest that add to the understanding of features and processes in the creeping section of the fault. Many of the rolling stops are located where stopping is difficult to dangerous; some of these sites are not appropriate for large vehicles (buses) or groups; some sites are not appropriate for people at all. We include photographs of or from many of these sites to add to the reader's experience without adding too many stops or hazards to the trip.

An extensive set of literature is available for those interested in the San Andreas fault or in the creeping section, in particular. For more scientifically oriented overviews of the fault, see Wallace (1990) and Irwin (1990); for a more generalized overview with abundant, colorful illustrations, see Collier (1999). Although the presence of small sections of the San Andreas fault was known before the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it was only after that event and subsequent geologic investigations reported in Lawson (1908) that showed the fault as a long structure, extending all the way from east of Los Angeles into northern California. Prentice (1999) described the importance of the 1908 “Lawson report” and how it pivotally influenced the understanding of the San Andreas. Hill (1981) presented a wonderful introduction to the evolution of thought on the San Andreas. Geologic maps and maps of the most recently active fault trace in the creeping section, or large parts of it, include those by Brown (1970), Dibblee (19711980), and Wagner et al. (2002); detailed geologic maps are discussed at various stops in this guide. Various aspects of the creeping section of the San Andreas fault have been the focus of many geologic field trips in the past few decades. Guidebooks for some of those trips include those by Gribi (1963a1963b), Brabb et al. (1966), Rogers (1969), Bucknam and Haller (1989), Harden et al. (2001), and Stoffer (2005).

The creeping section of the San Andreas fault zone lies between areas that experienced large-displacement surface breakage during great earthquakes in 1857 and 1906 (Fig. 1 inset). Burford and Harsh (1980) divided the creeping section into three segments: (1) a northwest section where the creep rate increases to the southeast in step-like increments, (2) a central section where the creep rate is relatively constant at a maximum value of ∼30 mm/yr (∼1.2 in/yr), and (3) a southeast section where the creep rate decreases to the southeast (Fig. 2). The rate of slip along the creeping section of the fault zone has been measured using creepmeters, alignment arrays, and laser distance-measuring devices. The aperture of measurements over which these measurements are made ranges from 10 m (∼33 ft) (creepmeters) to 100 m (∼330 ft) (alignment arrays) to kilometers and tens of kilometers (laser measuring devices). Creepmeter and alignment-array measurements are here termed “near-fault” measurements; laser measurements over distances of 1–2 km (∼0.6–1.2 mi) are termed “intermediate-scale” measurements; laser measurements over tens of kilometers (miles) are termed “broadscale” measurements. Comparisons among near-fault, intermediate-scale, and broadscale measurements and geologic maps show that the northwest part of the creeping section of the fault is composed of two narrow zones of active deformation, one along the San Andreas fault and one along the Calaveras-Paicines fault, whereas the central and southeast sections are both composed of a single relatively narrow zone of deformation. The southeast section is transitional to a locked zone southeast of Cholame; a locked fault is one that slips only in association with a moderate to large earthquake. Throughout the creeping section of the San Andreas fault zone, broadscale measurements generally indicate more deformation than near-fault and intermediate-scale measurements, which are in reasonably close agreement except at Monarch Peak (Mustang Ridge), near the center of the creeping section and our Stop 5 ((Figs. 1) and 2).

Features that we see on this trip include offset street curbs, closed depressions (sag ponds), fault scarps (steep slopes formed by movement along a fault), a split and displaced tree, offset fence lines, fresh fractures, and offset road lines (Fig. 3 is a sketch showing some of the landforms that represent deformation by an active fault). We also see evidence of long-term maturity of the San Andreas fault, as indicated by fault features and displaced rock types (Fig. 4). Finally, we will visit sites of ongoing research into the processes associated with earthquakes and their effects. Discussions include drilling into the San Andreas fault at the SAFOD drill site and the 2004 Parkfield earthquake and its effects and implications.

Publication Year 2006
Title A field guide to the central, creeping section of the San Andreas fault and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth
DOI 10.1130/2006.1906SF(16)
Authors Michael J. Rymer, Stephen H. Hickman, Philip W. Stoffer
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70242736
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earthquake Science Center