Nevada’s largest earthquake in 66 years left little more than cracked asphalt and shaken residents in its wake, but according to the top scientist at the state’s seismological lab, Friday’s 6.5 temblor was a near miss.
“We dodged a bullet in many ways in terms of where it was,” said Graham Kent, the director of the Nevada Seismological Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The quake, centered in a remote area 36 miles west of Tonopah, was felt across three states. It ruptured nearby U.S. 95 — a major artery between Las Vegas and Reno — and swung chandeliers in the quiet historic towns it was closest to.
But no injuries have been reported and structures — even notoriously unstable historic buildings — made it through seemingly unscathed.
Take that same earthquake and recenter it underneath Reno, a situation that’s more when than if, and it could have yielded “millions of dollars of damage and loss of life,” Kent said.
That natural disaster would have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which would vastly complicate the normal practice of placing displaced people in mass evacuation centers. Now, an evacuation center would place scores of people at risk for exposure to the virus, adding another layer onto an already complicated situation.
Though the largest quake of this sequence hit just after 4 a.m. Friday morning, Kent stressed Nevada is not yet out of the woods.
Aftershocks — some of them fairly strong — have been happening by the hundreds in the hours after the 6.5, Kent said.
The six strongest of them happened in the hour immediately after the quake, all of them above magnitude 4.5.
There’s also a chance that what’s currently being referred to as the mainshock — the 6.5 earthquake — was actually a foreshock, and the largest earthquake is yet to come.
The United States Geological Survey pegs the chance that a larger earthquake will happen in the next week in that region at about 4 percent.
But Kent said the odds are likely a bit higher than that. When the USGS calculates that percentage, it’s using statistics from a much larger area than just western Nevada and eastern California, he explained.
Historically, large earthquakes hitting in pairs or as a series is fairly characteristic of the seismic zone that ruptured on Friday, which is known as the Walker Lane.
The Walker Lane is a 60-mile wide band of active faults that stretches from the Mojave Desert in southern California, through western Nevada (and the Reno area) and back into northern California.
Kent rattled off a list of famous Walker Lane earthquakes over the past 30 to 40 years which happened in pairs.
The 2019 Ridgecrest earthquake sequence, which happened on the southern end of the Walker Lane and was responsible for Nevada’s first earthquake-related death, was highlighted by a 6.4 foreshock on July 4 followed by a magnitude 7.1 mainshock on July 5.
Even the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Nevada, the 1954 Fairview earthquake east of Reno was a series of five strong earthquakes. The strongest two — a 6.8 foreshock and the 7.1 mainshock — happened just four minutes apart.
Kent said his lab is currently deploying additional remote sensors in the area of Friday’s earthquake sequence to get a better handle on what the ground is doing.
“So whether (the odds of another large quake) are 4 percent or 20 percent or 35 percent, there is that potential we saw in Ridgecrest,” Kent said. “So it’s important for us to maybe catch that with more equipment on the ground.”
While seismic activity continues near Tonopah and the risk for a larger earthquake remains, that doesn’t mean Friday’s earthquake sequence will trigger some sort of chain reaction that sets off a quake near one of Nevada’s population centers.
That activity is just too far away from Las Vegas and Reno to cause a chain reaction like that, Kent said.
“But that doesn’t mean mother nature doesn’t have a sense of humor and just randomly puts one nearby,” he said, adding that residents of Nevada should be prepared by visiting shakeout.org/Nevada and learn the drop, cover and hold drill.
Sam Gross is a breaking news reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal who covers wildfires, emergencies and more. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com.
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