4.5 magnitude earthquake near Carson City, felt in Tahoe


Earthquake activity near Carson City, NV and Lake Tahoe’s fault lines. People can report feeling an Earthquake on the USGS website. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Gabby Dodd, Managing Editor

On March 20 at 6:33 p.m., a 4.5 magnitude earthquake struck three miles from Indian Hills, near the Carson City area, making it the largest earthquake in the area so far this year according to information from Earthquake Track.

The United States Geological Survey website shows that the quake was felt across North and South Lake Tahoe, as well as Truckee, Pollock Pines, and even as far away as Sacramento.

A YouTube video posted shortly after the quake showed products that had fallen off shelves at a Carson City Walmart. Only minor damage was reported.

Earthquake Track also shows that the Carson City area has had 12 earthquakes in the last week that were of 1.5 magnitude or greater.

According to Glenn Biasi, a scientist at USGS, the recent earthquake is an example of the Sierra Nevada range pulling away from the Carson Valley over time.

“It will end up making the Carson Valley a little bit deeper,” Biasi said. “It’ll make it a little bit farther from say Lake Tahoe to Virginia City. The reason there are valleys there is because this has been going on for a very long time.”

Biasi also explains that there are several faults in the Carson City area capable of very powerful earthquakes. Both Nevada and California are well known for their earthquake activity as they are home to multitudes of fault lines.

In Tahoe specifically, there are three major fault lines. One runs under Incline Village, very close to the Sierra Nevada University campus, but is the least active of the three, according to Graham Kent, Director of the University of Nevada, Reno Seismological Lab.

“It [the Incline Village fault] cut loose about 700 years ago at a roughly 7.0 magnitude event,” Kent said. “But then the time before that may have been as much as 20,000 years.”

The second fault is near Stateline in the Crystal Bay area. The largest of the three, is the fault line that runs north to south along the west side of the lake, known as the West Tahoe-Dollar Point fault. This fault has the most dangerous potential.

“These faults tend to have these little events and then when they go, they go large and very destructive, damaging earthquakes,” Kent said.

In the last couple decades, there have only been around three earthquakes that neared the 5.0 magnitude range in the Tahoe area. In other parts of the Basin, there haven’t been earthquakes near that size, according to Kent.

However, Kent explains, if the faults near the state line and West Shore were to rupture in a large event, they have the potential to create a tsunami with waves as high as 30 feet. It is unlikely that the fault under Incline could cause a tsunami, as most of the fault is onshore compared to the other two faults.

“Looking at the West Tahoe fault, we know that an earthquake is overdue, so it’s 500 years past its return time,” Kent said. “It could go in a thousand years or it could rupture tomorrow.”

Earthquake destruction differs depending on how deep down the quake occurred. In 2008, West Reno was struck with a 5.0 earthquake. An earthquake of that magnitude would normally cause minor damage, but this one caused lots of destruction because the earthquake occurred closer to the surface.

Bigger earthquakes also release about 1,000 times more energy than what residents in Tahoe felt on March 20, “even though it may have felt like quite a jolt,” explained Kent.

It is not possible for scientists to predict when and where exactly an earthquake will occur, but earthquake forecasts are used to calculate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a specific area in a certain number of years.

Residents living in earthquake-prone areas should have a plan of action in case of a major event. USGS’s Biasi explains that you should never sleep under anything heavy or anything that could fall on your head.

Kent encourages people to learn the drop, cover, hold on drill and participate in the Great ShakeOut drill every October. He also explains that if an earthquake were to occur in Tahoe, beachgoers should evacuate quickly to higher ground.

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