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Gas Seeping from Los Angeles Faultline May Signal Massive Quake to Come

© Flickr / Brian HawkinsDowntown Los Angeles
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Scientists have discovered helium gas leaking from a huge fault line on the Earth’s crust in central Los Angeles, a sign that substantially increases the chances of the “big one” – a major earthquake that could inflict unprecedented damage on the Golden State.

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Stretching across Southern California, the Newport-Inglewood fault is an ancient subduction zone that was created 30 million years ago when the Pacific plate collided with the North American plate. Scientists believed the subduction zone to be relatively shallow due to its old age.

However, in a recent study, geologists found evidence of helium leaking from the fault, suggesting the zone was much deeper and has the potential to produce an earthquake of magnitude 8 or higher.

UC Santa Barbara Jim Boles examined gas samples collected from two dozen oil wells from LA’s Westside to Newport Beach in Orange County, along a 3-mile stretch of the Newport-Inglewood fault.

When the samples were analyzed, he found more than one third had evidence of high levels of helium 3, or 3He, a vestige of the Big Bang that can only be found in Earth’s mantle. The evidence of 3He therefore suggests that the subduction zone stretches deep into the Earth.

"The results are unexpected for the area, because the LA Basin is different from where most mantle helium anomalies occur," Boles said.  "The Newport-Inglewood fault appears to sit on a 30 million-year-old subduction zone, so it is surprising that it maintains a significant pathway through the crust."

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Boles findings were published in the Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems (G-Cubed) online journal.

"We know that the Newport-Inglewood fault is not only deep seated, but also directly or indirectly connected with the mantle," he wrote.

The findings confirm the warnings recently issued by the US Geological Survey of a "big one" hitting the city within the next 30 years, and further increase the chances of the magnitude 8 earthquake from 4.7 to 7%. Such an earthquake could produce major damage to the city’s infrastructure, destroying everything from its buildings to its transportation system.

In 1906, a magnitude 7.8 struck San Francisco and destroyed about 80% of the city, causing 3,000 deaths.

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