Kate Hutton

Caltech seismologist Kate Hutton 

Source: Facebook

Kate Hutton, staff seismologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has been studying earthquakes and the science behind them for more than three decades.

Nicknamed the Earthquake Lady, Hutton says seismologists can help estimate earthquake risk in various locations, increase our understanding of the physics of earthquakes, and estimate the severity of shaking in different seismic scenarios. Seismologists may also assist in emergency planning, zoning and the design of buildings and other structures that better withstand the shaking that comes with powerful earthquakes.


TBC: Depending on the source, I'm seeing the magnitude of the Tehachapi quake described as 7.3, 7.5, 7.6 and 7.7. Is there a definitive number?

Hutton: This question is complicated. First, there are several different ways of calculating an earthquake magnitude. By present standards, the best method, especially for the larger quakes, is "moment magnitude, " and the best moment magnitude value for this quake is 7.5. (Note: In simple terms, moment magnitude is a complex mathematical calculation used to estimate the total energy released in an earthquake. It is now the preferred magnitude scale in use by seismologists.)

Another issue is that the instrumentation available in 1952 was definitely not as good as what we have now, so even considering only moment magnitude, there is some uncertainty.

Still, I think almost all seismologists would agree that 7.5 is a very good estimate for the Kern County earthquake.


TBC: Here's a layman's question: Can you talk about why the much larger first quake did relatively little damage to Bakersfield, while the much less powerful 5.5 magnitude aftershock on Aug. 22 wreaked so much destruction?

Hutton: The 5.5 earthquake on Aug. 22 was much closer to Bakersfield, hence the shaking was stronger there, even though the earthquake had a smaller magnitude.

There is often confusion over the difference between magnitude, which is intended to characterize the true size of the earthquake — how much rock moved how far, say — and intensity, which is a measure of the effects of the shaking and perceptions. Ideally, an earthquake has only one magnitude and a whole map full of intensities.


TBC: In 1952, Bakersfield's population was 46,725, with about 129,000 residents in the greater metro area. Today, close to 355,000 live within the city limits, while more than a half-million people reside in greater Bakersfield. Are you able to speak to what we might expect if we had a similar string of earthquakes on the White Wolf Fault? What about the Garlock Fault?

Hutton: There are competing factors here. On one hand, the building codes are more stringent now than they were in 1952. We don't build unreinforced masonry anymore at all. This will reduce deaths, injuries and property damage in future large earthquakes, no matter which fault they happen to be on.

On the other side, however, population has increased and is now more widely distributed. So there is more exposure to the risk.


TBC: Bakersfield exists atop a web of seismic faults. Do those faults interact? Could a quake on one fault trigger a quake on another?

Hutton: The occurrence of any earthquake releases strain from the crust, but it also rearranges strain to some extent. In some areas there may actually be an increase. Depending on the strain level that is already present, the increment might or might not trigger another earthquake, immediately or at some later time.

As you might guess, small quakes make small changes and larger quakes make larger changes in the strain field. So it is much more common for large quakes to trigger additional earthquakes, which are called aftershocks. Most aftershocks occur along the same fault where the mainshock occurred, because that is where the largest changes in strain occur.

Occasionally, other nearby faults are affected. A good example is the Big Bear aftershock (magnitude 6.3) of the 1992 Landers earthquake (magnitude 7.3), which was on a different fault.

A longer version of this Q&A was originally published in 2012.

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