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Beneath a star-filled sky along an abandoned rail line that's close to the San Andreas fault, USGS geologist Mark Goldman monitors a pair of computers that will record explosions from 16 blast sites across the desert. Analysis of those seismic waves will help scientists to accurately map the shape, depth and location of fault lines near the Salton Sea. Some sensors are hard-wired to the cord that stretches through the scrub.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Geologists Coyn Criley and Joe Svitek walk to the edge of a blast hole they had detonated minutes before. Once data are recorded, the desert area near the Salton Sea will be cleared of wires, pipes and instruments and restored to its natural condition.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

USGS geologists Coyn Criley, left, and Joe Svitek prepare one of 16 blast sites where explosives buried 10 feet underground will be detonated in the early morning hours.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

As the sun sets over the Salton Sea basin, USGS geologist Robert Sickler uses a long pole to gently tamp desert sand on an explosive charge he buried about 10 feet down in a plastic tube. Controlled explosions to measure fault lines are usually done at night when truck and train traffic is at a minimum.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

USGS geologist Coyn Criley loads an explosive charge and detonator wire into a plastic pipe that is then drilled 10 feet into the desert floor. Blast sites on and near the San Andreas fault are linked to seismic sensors that will record the night's detonations.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Angel Olguin jams a seismic sensor into a shallow trough scraped in the desert floor near the Salton Sea. Thousands of such sensors will record seismic waves from detonated explosives to "map" the San Andreas fault.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Frank Sousa, left, Erin Carrick and Angel Olguin scramble up the berm of an abandoned rail line a few miles east of the Salton Sea burying seismometers in the desert floor. They are part of the Salton Seismic Imaging Project seeking to map the San Andreas fault.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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Monitoring the San Andreas for the Big One

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One of the most seismically active — and geologically complex –  regions of the country, if not the continent, is a triangle of land extending from Palm Springs to the Gulf of California. Most people know of this region for the Salton Sea, that brackish backwater in the desert, but that’s man-made. It’s the natural forces here that interest scientists most.

Just three days after the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, Times staff photographer Don Bartletti and Thomas Curwen joined a research team in the foothills east of the Salton Sea. They were out there to set off underground explosions and record the seismic waves. The story was too promising to pass up.

They joined their day crew at 7 a.m. as they buried seismometers over a five-mile course in the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains. They followed an abandoned train track for part of the way, traipsed through mud, skirted thorny acacias and dodged a coiled rattlesnake. Just as that crew headed back to their headquarters in El Centro, they hooked up with the explosive handling experts with the U.S. Geological Survey for the nighttime detonations.

The science is straightforward: Just as a CT scan uses X-rays to produce images of the human body, seismic waves can be used to create three-dimensional images of the Earth.  The researchers hope to create pictures of the San Andreas fault and of the underground structures of the region. The information will help them create models of earthquakes that originate from here, and those models will help others anticipate — and perhaps prevent –  the damage that the temblors do.

By 1 a.m., Bartletti and Curwen were at one of the blast sites. A half moon was shimmering off the Salton Sea. Contrails of jets were silver in the starry sky, and when the explosion went off, the ground popped and rolled with a quick, oddly gentle undulation.

To get the shot above, Bartletti clamped his camera firmly on a tripod and set the aperture of the 16-millimeter wide-angle lens to wide-open at f2.8. While geologist Mark Goldman was sitting motionless, studying the data on the screens, Bartletti opened the shutter for 15 seconds. The computers lit his face and light from the half moon in the clear sky illuminated the desert landscape around him.

– Thomas Curwen and Don Bartletti

Read the full story “Looking inside the San Andreas.”

1 Comment

  1. July 5, 2011, 9:45 pm

    [...] Photos: Monitoring the San Andreas for the Big One [...]

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