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70 years since 1952 earthquake left Kern on shaky ground

Posted at 4:18 PM, Jul 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-21 19:18:01-04

It was the largest earthquake in Southern California since 1857.

Twelve people were killed when a 7.5 Magnitude earthquake hit the White Wolf Fault 23 miles south of Bakersfield. The tremor causing 50 million in damage throughout Kern County. Experts saying much of the damage stemming from the belief that this fault wasn’t a major risk.

“At the time, I think they were used to these surface level strike slip quakes. So when the 1952 quake happened it was partly a strike slip fault but it also had a significant reverse faulting, so it released a lot more energy," said CalTech Seismologist Gabrielle Tepp. Tepp is working in the lab studying how some of these higher magnitude quakes can be better forecasted.

The 1952 quake revealed more about what happens to our surface when an earthquake of this magnitude hits. Dr. Lucy Jones, one of California's top experts on these tremors, told us 20 years ago that this quake was unique to seismologist at the time. The vertical movement of the quake unlike what they'd expected, especially for that fault.

Tepp says they're still learning more about the White Wolf Fault and how earthquakes on a strike slip fault move. She said following the 2019 earthquakes in Ridgecrest, seismologists can now look at how tremors move from one fault to another.

“Now we have to consider that you can get two faults involved or five faults, or even ten faults. Then you get this chain reaction and you end up with a much bigger earthquake than you intended to happen," Tepp said. “A major earthquake doesn’t have to happen on one fault, it can start on neighboring faults or jump from one fault to another.”

Recent studies have explored the impact that oil drilling has on faults, suggesting that the White Wolf Fault was especially susceptible to earthquakes due to its proximity to the Wheeler Ridge oil field.

“We're trying to take what we know now and apply it to what was recorded then, even though back then they didn't have the same technology," said Tepp.

By better understanding the forces that caused the 7.5M earthquake 70 years ago, scientists hope this will improve our chances of forecasting reactions within the earths surface and bring us closer to understanding when those big ones might hit.