Over geologic time, plate movements in concert with other geologic processes, such as glacial and stream erosion, have created some of nature's most magnificent scenery. The Himalayas, the Swiss Alps, and the Andes are some spectacular examples. Yet violent earthquakes related to plate tectonics have caused terrible catastrophes -- such as the magnitude-7.7 earthquake that struck the Chinese province of Hebei in 1976 and killed as many as 800,000 people.
Because many major population centers are located near active fault zones, such as the San Andreas, millions of people have suffered personal and economic losses as a result of destructive earthquakes, and even more have experienced earthquake motions. Not surprisingly, some people believe that, when the "Big One" hits, California will suddenly "break off" and "fall into the Pacific," or that the Earth will "open up" along the fault and "swallow" people, cars, and houses. Such beliefs have no scientific basis whatsoever. Although ground slippage commonly takes place in a large earthquake, the Earth will not open up. Nor will California fall into the sea, because the fault zone only extends about 15 km deep, which is only about a quarter of the thickness of the continental crust. Furthermore, California is composed of continental crust, whose relatively low density keeps it riding high, like an iceberg above the ocean.
The dynamic earth 1996.
Not all fault movement is as violent and destructive. Near the city of Hollister in central California, the Calaveras Fault bends toward the San Andreas. Here, the Calaveras fault creeps at a slow, steady pace, posing little danger. Much of the Calaveras fault creeps at an average rate of 5 to 6 mm/yr. On average, Hollister has some 20,000 earthquakes a year, most of which are too small to be felt by residents. It is rare for an area undergoing creep to experience an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 6.0 because stress is continually being relieved and, therefore, does not accumulate. Fault-creep movement generally is non-threatening, resulting only in gradual offset of roads, fences, sidewalks, pipelines, and other structures that cross the fault. However, the persistence of fault creep does pose a costly nuisance in terms of maintenance and repair.
The dynmanic earth 1996