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Urban areas in Southern California are at risk from major earthquakes, not only quakes generated by long-recognized onshore faults but also ones that occur along poorly understood offshore faults. We summarize recent research findings concerning these lesser known faults. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey during the past five years indicates that these faults from the eastern Santa Barbara Channel south to Dana Point pose a potential earthquake threat. Historical seismicity in this area indicates that, in general, offshore faults can unleash earthquakes having at least moderate (M 5–6) magnitude.

Estimating the earthquake hazard in Southern California is complicated by strain partitioning and by inheritance of structures from early tectonic episodes. The three main episodes are Mesozoic through early Miocene subduction, early Miocene crustal extension coeval with rotation of the Western Transverse Ranges, and Pliocene and younger transpression related to plate-boundary motion along the San Andreas Fault. Additional complication in the analysis of earthquake hazards derives from the partitioning of tectonic strain into strike-slip and thrust components along separate but kinematically related faults.

The eastern Santa Barbara Basin is deformed by large active reverse and thrust faults, and this area appears to be underlain regionally by the north-dipping Channel Islands thrust fault. These faults could produce moderate to strong earthquakes and destructive tsunamis. On the Malibu coast, earthquakes along offshore faults could have left-lateral-oblique focal mechanisms, and the Santa Monica Mountains thrust fault, which underlies the oblique faults, could give rise to large (M ~7) earthquakes. Offshore faults near Santa Monica Bay and the San Pedro shelf are likely to produce both strike-slip and thrust earthquakes along northwest-striking faults. In all areas, transverse structures, such as lateral ramps and tear faults, which crosscut the main faults, could segment earthquake rupture zones.

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