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Thu Nov 28, 2019, 07:11 PM

Mysterious tectonic fault zone found off California

Beneath the cerulean waters of Monterey Bay, just a few miles southeast of Santa Cruz, California, a never-before-seen cluster of faults has been found lurking on the ocean floor.

These newly spotted wrinkles in Earth’s crust, described in a paper published today in Science, are still largely a mystery. We can’t say much about their size, shape, or how active they are. Still, the findings show that even in one of the most seismically studied corners of the planet, fault maps of the ocean floor contain gaping holes. That’s a big problem, because if we don’t know where seafloor faults are, coastal communities are going to be in the dark about any earthquake or tsunami threats they might present.

The new research also offers a solution to our tectonic blindspot: We can harness the hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables that send emails, Tweets, and video messages ping-ponging across Earth every day. Scientists discovered California’s newest known offshore faults by borrowing a garden hose-size fiber optic cable that spans the seafloor of Monterey Bay and turning it into an ad-hoc seismic array. (Also find out how researchers used ancient Aztec records to find a previously unknown seismic risk in Mexico.)

Researchers hope this new method might one day be used to collect treasure troves of seismic data in major cities that are already undergirded by networks of fiber optic telecommunications cables but don’t have the budget or physical space to install thousands of seismometers. Cables located directly offshore of major population centers, meanwhile, might be slightly retooled to serve as the backbone for new early warning systems.

“The possibilities are pretty large,” says study coauthor Craig Dawe of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Worldwide, there’s lots of fiber optic cable deployed.”


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