By David Jacobson, Temblor
Over the weekend, a massive landslide in Big Sur left part of Highway 1 covered in 35-40 feet of dirt, with some reports stating that the section of road may remain closed for months. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident, as this part of highway has been closed almost continuously since January due to smaller landslides caused by California’s unusually wet winter and spring. This stretch of California is an extremely popular tourist destination because of its spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and steep cliffs. However, now the area is completely cut off, with Caltrans wondering if the road is even still there or if it will have to be completely rebuilt.
While this is an isolated incident, it also highlights the earthquake vulnerability of the Big Sur coastline. In the event of a large earthquake, it is highly likely that numerous landslides will block Highway 1, which will make getting supplies in and people out that much more difficult. According to the California Geological Survey, this entire stretch of California is very susceptible to landslides because of high angle slopes and weak rock.
Even though this part of Northern California is not very seismically active, the San Gregorio Fault runs straight through Big Sur. The San Gregorio Fault, is a large right-lateral strike-slip fault which runs nearly parallel to the San Andreas, until they merge northwest of the Golden Gate. Based on investigations, the San Gregorio last ruptured 220-700 years ago, prior to Spanish missionary arrival. A repeat of such an event would exceed M=7.0, and would trigger violent shaking throughout Northern California. The threat of such an earthquake, as well as quakes on smaller faults in the area was one of the factors that prompted PG&E to last year announce that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant would be closed. This plant in San Luis Obispo, is California’s last nuclear power plant, and sits mere kilometers from active faults.
To gain a greater understanding of what could happen to the Big Sur coastline in a large earthquake, we need only look at what happened in the November 2016 Kaikoura, New Zealand earthquake. This M=7.8 quake resulted in over 10,000 landslides, several of which blocked New Zealand’s Highway 1, which is not completely open six months after the earthquake. The isolation which has befallen Kaikoura, has been devastating as the town is highly dependent on tourism, and with significant closures, many businesses have either closed or seen significant decreases in profits. Furthermore, the fact that the damaged stretch of highway is not completely open more than six months after the earthquake illustrates how long it can take for clearing and repairs to be completed. The image below shows one of the landslides that blocked New Zealand’s State Highway 1, and the resemblance to the Big Sur coast is quite evident.
Because Big Sur, like Kaikoura, is so heavily dependent on tourism, at least one resort has refused to let road closures impact business. The Post Ranch Inn, north of the landslide has been using helicopters to bring in guests since April to cope with the closed highway. However, not all resorts have been so lucky, as some have seen reservations decrease by over 50%. If such hardship has hit resorts from the recent landslides, who know what would happen to them if the number of slides increased into the thousands. What all of this shows is that we are lucky to have such natural beauty, created by faults, but that the faults can also quickly take it away.
The video below shows the extent of the Big Sur landslide
New York Times
Gary D. Simpson, Stephen C. Thompson, J. Stratton Noller, and William R. Lettis, The Northern San Gregorio Fault Zone: Evidence for the Timing of Late Holocene Earthquakes near Seal Cove, California, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 87, No. 5, pp. 1158-1170, October 1997.