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How California's drought could trigger earthquakes

Geologists say California's drought could potentially cause earthquakes in the long run and that's because in response to the dry conditions farmers and homeowners have been digging deeper wells to...

(CBS 8) - California's severe drought has been causing all kinds of problems, and now you may be able to add a new one to the list.

While the possibility of the "big one" striking California is constantly on our radar, a new study in the journal Nature adds an extra fear factor, suggesting the more water that's pumped out of the ground in the Central Valley during these dire drought conditions, the greater the chance of earthquakes on the nearby San Andreas fault.

"So the idea behind this proposal is, if the ground is sinking, does that sinking cause accelerated movement along the fault? And that might be the trigger to make a fault movement occur," SDSU geology professor Dr. Pat Abbott said.

Abbott says it's important to maintain perspective. While the San Andreas Fault has a depth of some 12 miles, or roughly 60,000 feet, in comparison, water being pumped out of the ground goes only as deep as 500 to 1,000 feet.

"So you're really just talking about the upper 1 1/2 percent of the area that's sinking, and that would not have an effect on a deep fault, but it might trigger a surface break," Abbott said.

It's a trigger that would have no impact on the magnitude or length of the quake. And while this extreme reliance on draining ground water reserves has an extremely low probability of triggering the next big quake, there is no doubt that the big one will eventually occur.

"It is still inevitable. It doesn't change how we live our lives or how we plan for big earthquakes," Abbott said.

Of course it is critical to have an emergency plan already in place for when that big earthquake hits. In the meantime, there are currently no state regulations that control or manage groundwater use in California.

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