M=5.7 earthquake highlights rifting Gulf of California

By David Jacobson, Temblor

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Underneath the Gulf of California lies a textbook example of the opening of an ocean basin. This process is slowing causing Baja California to separate from mainland Mexico. (Photo from: history.com)


Yesterday, at 8:15 a.m. local time, a M=5.7 earthquake shook the southern portion of the Gulf of California. The quake was widely felt close to the epicenter, and felt reports came in on the USGS website from San Diego, where weak shaking would have been felt approximately 1,000 km away. Because the earthquake did not occur close to populated centers, no damage has been reported, and the USGS expects that none will be seen.

This Temblor map shows the location of yesterday’s earthquake as well and the plate motion in the area which is causing Baja California to slowly move farther away from mainland Mexico.


The Gulf of California is an important region tectonically as it marks a transitional corridor that separates the East Pacific Rise to the south, and the San Andreas Fault to the north. Over the last 20 million years, the western margin of the North American Plate has slowly evolved due to relative plate motions. In much of California and Baja California, the Pacific Plate is sliding northward. Products of this are strike-slip and extensional faults, which have caused Baja California to rift apart from mainland Mexico. It should also be pointed out that much of southwestern California is a remnant of the North American continent which was sheared off and moved to the northwest. This also means that the city of San Diego is slowly moving closer to San Francisco.

The video below shows the tectonic evolution of the western margin of North America


Within the Gulf of California, numerous spreading ridges are separated by traditional strike-slip faults. As the ridges move apart, small earthquakes occur near the ridges, while the larger earthquakes take place on the strike-slip faults. Most of the larger quakes in the Gulf are unlikely to disrupt daily life as they are far from populated areas. However, at the northern end of the Gulf, and into California’s Imperial Valley, where the system transitions to a continental boundary, large earthquakes have the potential to cause significant damage. This is partially due to the fact that the region is underlain by soft sediments which can shake violently and liquefy in earthquakes.

This Temblor map shows a regional map including yesterday’s M=5.7 earthquake. This figure illustrates how the Gulf of California marks a transitional corridor between the San Andreas Fault and the East Pacific Rise. This figure also shows the Global Earthquake Activity Rate (GEAR) model which shows that M=6.75 earthquakes are likely throughout the Gulf.


Based on the Global Earthquake Activity Rate (GEAR) model, which incorporates strain rates and past seismicity, magnitude 6.5+ earthquakes are expected along nearly the entire extent of the Gulf of California. Therefore, a M=5.7 quake should come as no surprise. However, it does help shed light on how the western coast of North America has transformed over millions of years. Additionally, this region is a textbook example of the opening of an ocean basin.