Having attended the 1989 World Series when an earthquake rocked Candlestick Park, Steve Cass knows it would be helpful to have more information about future quakes. So when seismologists from UC Berkeley asked to install a seismic station at his Paso Robles business, Cass Vineyard & Winery, he was happy to provide the space.
“If we can get a two-week notice for the next 'Big One,' it’ll be worth it,” Cass said.
The seismologists, working for the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, finished installing the equipment Thursday. Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the project — named TremorScope — hopes to determine a connection between small tremors and major earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault.
In an ideal world, scientists will discover that small tremors can help them forecast big quakes.
“It is still a hypothesis, maybe only a proposal,” project leader Peggy Hellweg said in an email. “Tremors precede quakes … but are they an indicator? No proof at this point.”
There’s even speculation that tremors cause quakes, according to a news release about the project from UC Berkeley.
A seismometer, which measures motion in the ground, was installed underground at the Paso Robles vineyard. It is one of four new seismometers TremorScope plans to use around the Parkfield area, about 56 miles northeast of the winery. Four seismometers had already been installed around Parkfield.
Parkfield has been nicknamed The Earthquake Capital of the World because of its location along the San Andreas Fault.
“It is a location where earthquakes have seemed to happen regularly,” Hellweg said.
As a result, Parkfield — with a population of 18 — is a major research hub for seismologists and a quake tourist destination. (The Parkfield Inn slogan: “Sleep here when it happens.”)
The public has long been fascinated with earthquakes in California — as evidenced by the upcoming big-budget disaster film “San Andreas,” set to be released this month. While filmmakers exaggerated the power of the San Andreas Fault in typical blockbuster fashion, scientists have long predicted “The Big One” will occur along the San Andreas.
“Maybe not in our lifetimes,” Hellweg said. “But maybe. There will be a south ‘Big One,’ like in 1857, and a north ‘Big One,’ like in 1906.”
The 1857 quake, centered in Fort Tejon, had a magnitude of 7.9, while the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — which may have been responsible for up to 3,000 deaths — was a 7.8. Both were caused by the San Andreas Fault.
Just last week, a study by the Seismological Society of America in Pasadena predicted that a major San Andreas quake could be so powerful it might trigger a series of other earthquakes, ramping up the overall destruction.
Given the potential damage, it makes sense to try to predict when the Big One might happen.
Tremors, located underneath the zone where earthquakes occur, build up slowly in the seismic record, then slowly disappear, Hellweg said. Earthquakes, she added, start suddenly and then decay back to the background level.
The 1989 quake that Cass experienced while waiting for Game 3 of the World Series was an unexpected shaker that originated with a fault line adjacent to the San Andreas Fault.
In 2003, Cass was at his winery in Paso Robles when the San Simeon quake struck.
That 6.6-magnitude quake, not attributed to the San Andreas Fault, resulted in the deaths of two people and caused extensive damage to downtown Paso Robles.
“I was standing in what is now my winery building before the construction was done on it,” he said. “The building shook like crazy. I was interviewing my future tasting room manager, and I said, ‘Maybe we ought to work outside.’ ”
Members of the TremorScope project first contacted Cass about four years ago, he said. Several months ago, they began installing equipment and drilling a borehole 900 feet underground.
Hopefully, Cass said, the work on his property will minimize the impact of future shakers.
“Imagine being able to turn off your gas, turn off your water and take all the breakable things off the tall shelves (before an earthquake),” Cass said. “It has pretty amazing