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Preliminary report on the 22 December 2003, M 6.5 San Simeon, California earthquake

July 16, 2004

The Mw 6.5 San Simeon earthquake struck the central California coast on 22 December 2003 at 19:15:56 UTC (11:15:56 am local time.) The epicenter was located 11 km northeast of the town of San Simeon, and 39 km west-northwest of Paso Robles (Figure 1), as reported by the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN, the California region of the Advanced National Seismic System [ANSS]). The mainshock nucleated at 35.702°N, 121.108°W and a depth of 7.1 km, and the rupture propagated unilaterally to the southeast. The strong directivity of the rupture resulted in a concentration of damage and aftershock activity to the southeast of the hypocenter. The worst earthquake damage occurred in Paso Robles, where two people died in the collapse of an unreinforced masonry building. The accurate and rapid earthquake information provided in near real-time by CISN/ANSS to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services made it possible to focus emergency response in the source area, although the earthquake was felt from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The San Simeon earthquake occurred on a reverse fault striking northwest and most likely dipping to the northeast. Although motion along the Pacific-North America plate boundary in California is dominantly strike-slip, there is a small compressional component through central California. Repeated thrust earthquakes such as the San Simeon event accommodate this compression and build the Coast Ranges. Other recent thrust earthquakes in central California include the 1983 Coalinga (M 6.4) and the 1985 Kettleman Hills (M 6.0) earthquakes. Prior earthquakes in the vicinity of the San Simeon event include a M 5-6 earthquake in 1853, a M 5.7 earthquake in 1906, and the ML 6.2 Bryson earthquake of 1952 (Figure 1) (McLaren and Savage, 2001.)

The San Simeon earthquake occurred on a previously unknown blind thrust fault. No surface rupture associated with the earthquake has been identified. A number of roads, including State Highway 46, buckled due to the earthquake, but this deformation appears mainly to be failure of road fill due to ground shaking and not the result of tectonic surface rupture. Extrapolation of the fault plane to the surface would roughly align with the surface trace of the Oceanic Fault, but this is thought to be a vertical strike-slip fault.

Two models for the kinematics of the region have previously been proposed. The first is a fault-propagation fold model developed by Namson and Davis (1990) for the Santa Lucia mountains ∼30 km to the southeast of the San Simeon sequence. The mainshock geometry is similar to, although more steeply dipping than, the main blind thrust of this model, implying that this model may be applicable to the San Simeon region as well. The second is the model of McLaren and Savage (2001), in which the region is dominated by strike-slip faulting with shortening on high-angle reverse faults. This model also may be applicable, although the dip of the San Simeon mainshock is shallower than predicted.

The San Simeon earthquake was followed by a vigorous aftershock sequence, with 165 events above M 3 reported by CISN within the first week of the mainshock. Although the event triggered many aftershocks, it did not significantly impact the seismicity rates of other nearby faults such as the San Andreas Fault and the San Simeon-Hosgri fault zone. The only triggered seismicity seems to be a few small events within the mainshock coda at the Geysers geothermal area, north of San Francisco. The San Simeon earthquake did, however, trigger shallow creep on the San Andreas Fault at Parkfield and hydrologic changes in hot springs in Paso Robles.

Publication Year 2004
Title Preliminary report on the 22 December 2003, M 6.5 San Simeon, California earthquake
DOI 10.1785/gssrl.75.2.155
Authors Jeanne L. Hardebeck, John Boatwright, D. Dreger, Rakesh Goel, V. Graizer, Kenneth W. Hudnut, Ji Chen, Lucile M. Jones, John O. Langbein, Jian Lin, Evelyn A. Roeloffs, Robert W. Simpson, K. Stark, Ross S. Stein, John Tinsley
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Seismological Research Letters
Index ID 70211190
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earthquake Science Center