Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide

Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide

Anthony R. Kampf

Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist’s Guide by Susan Elizabeth Hough. Mountain Press, P.O. Box 2399, Missoula, MT 59806. 263 pages; 2004; $18 (hardbound).

For many years, California has been one of the prime tourist destinations in the United States. Considering its many natural and man made attractions, such as Disneyland, Hollywood, Yosemite, Big Sur, Death Valley, and the Golden Gate Bridge, this should come as no surprise. California is also Earthquake Country. Although you would think this bit of infamy would deter tourism, Susan Elizabeth Hough, in Finding Fault in California, presents California’s earthquakes and the faults that created them as tourist attractions.

Right from the beginning of chapter 1, we realize that this is going to be much more than a mere tour of the state’s faults. Hough starts by presenting an excellent synopsis of the last 30 million years in the life of California (geologically speaking) in the context of plate tectonics. She gives a lucid description of the transformation of the plate boundary from subduction to transform motion and explains that, although the San Andreas fault is currently the primary plate boundary, the Pacific–North American plate boundary system essentially encompasses the entire state. As Hough puts it: “The plate boundary is essentially shearing, or grinding, California into ribbons–and tangled ribbons at that.” She can certainly turn a phrase, and her conversational style of writing is generally a pleasure to read.

In chapter 2, Hough continues to prepare us for the tour ahead by presenting an excellent primer on faults, ostensibly so that we can “find them”; in the process we gain a good understanding of what they are, including what science knows and doesn’t yet know about them. As in the first chapter, Hough doesn’t shy away from presenting many of the complex aspects of seismic science, but her clear explanations make a difficult subject easy.

The succeeding chapters deal with finding faults in different regions of the state (and beyond): Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, central California, the desert, the Owens Valley, and beyond the borders (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Mexico). In each chapter, she discusses all of the important faults and the notable earthquakes that they have produced. The book’s tourist guide aspect is manifest here, as she provides detailed descriptions and photos of the fault features that can be readily viewed, along with detailed directions of how to find them and explanations of how to recognize them. The scientific significance of the faults, fault features, and earthquakes are explained as well, often with sidebars that highlight the work of various researchers.

Besides straying a bit beyond California’s borders, the book also strays into the subject of volcanoes. This is, of course, a natural digression, since volcanic activity itself produces earthquakes and faulting. The most important discussion of volcanic activity focuses on the Owens Valley, which is in fact an active rift valley. Here we find the Long Valley caldera, which resulted from a huge explosive eruption less than a million years ago, and which still shows signs of brewing unrest. If California’s earthquakes aren’t enough food for Hollywood disaster flicks, how about a volcano waiting to devastate one of the state’s largest ski areas (Mammoth Mountain)?

Hough comes with excellent scientific credentials. Since receiving her Ph.D. in geophysics from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (University of California at San Diego), she has been a research seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, California. She is the author of many research papers in the field of seismology, but she clearly has a special interest in sharing her expertise with a popular audience. This is Hough’s second book. Her first, Earthshaking Science: What We Know, and Don’t Know, About Earthquakes, received rave reviews, and this one deserves no less.

Anthony R. Kampf

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Los Angeles, California

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