Our Seismologist Explains Why Bernal’s Chert Is Better Than Soft Rock During an Earthquake

The Surveyor 40/52

In pretty much every earthquake post that has appeared on this blog, I have extolled the virtues of Bernal’s beloved red chert because it doesn’t shake all that hard even during really big seismic events — especially compared to the marsh sand under the Mission or the artificial landfill in the Marina. Today is the anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, so I figure this is a good to explain why chert keeps Bernal’s ground steadier.

Seismic waves travel at different speeds through different kinds of rock. The harder the rock, the faster the waves can travel. This alone is an advantage for shaking: waves spend less time traversing an area of hard rock than a comparably-sized area of sand or landfill.

Chert: 1    Landfill: 0

The issue is compounded, however, by the fact that every seismic wave has a specific amount of energy associated with it. If much of that energy goes into traveling quickly forward through the rock, less goes into shaking. But if the rock slows the forward propagation of the wave, the energy goes into shaking instead. The end result? Less shaking for less time in hard rock sites, more shaking for longer duration in soft soil sites.

Chert: 2     Landfill: 0

Liquefaction is another big problem with sand, soil, and landfill sites. Liquefaction is the process during which seismic shaking mixes loose soil and rock particles with groundwater, effectively turning the ground into quicksand. This was a huge problem in Japan and New Zealand this year, and it was also one of the main reasons the Marina was hit so hard in Loma Prieta. The more solid your rock, the fewer small particles there are to combine with groundwater, and the less the groundwater can permeate the rock in the first place. Bernal’s chert is good and solid, and it’s not going to turn to quicksand under us.

Chert: 3     Landfill: 0

So there you have it: Bernal’s chert means less shaking, for less time, without quicksand. In the event of another earthquake like Loma Prieta or 1906, Bernal Heights would certainly feel it, but our cherty geology will do a lot to help minimize the damage, whereas softer rock just strikes out.

PHOTO: Champi the Japanese Akita points out chert formations on Bernal Hill. Photo by Jay Axe

Our Seismologist Explains Why the 1906 Earthquake Did Little Damage to Bernalwood

As we noted earlier, today is the 105th anniversary of the Great Earthquake of 1906 — the infamous M7.8 rupture along the San Andreas Fault that severely damaged San Francisco before subsequent fires did the rest of the work destroying much of the City. The devastation was near-complete in the core of San Francisco, but Bernal Heights rode out the disaster relatively unscathed.

There were several reasons for this. Geologically speaking, Bernalwood is actually closer to the San Andreas than downtown, but the solid chert bedrock that makes up Bernal Hill didn’t shake nearly as hard as the soft sediment and artificial fill of the Financial District, Mission, or SoMa. That same chert explains why Bernal residents often miss smaller quakes that rattle people in other parts of the City.

That said, geology was secondary to Bernalwood’s survival in 1906. At the time, Bernal Heights was very much a part of the relatively-unsettled outskirts of town. There were fewer structures in Bernal to be destroyed, and most of the buildings that did exist were wood-framed working-class homes. Even on bad soil — but especially on chert! –wood structures perform better than masonry in strong shaking.

Though it was relatively uninvolved in the destruction, Bernal Heights played a big part in the phoenix-like rebirth of San Francisco in the years immediately following 1906. Amid the transition from the tent camps and wooden shacks that occupied places like Dolores and Precita Parks, people noticed that Bernal had largely escaped the catastrophe, and that it might be a (somewhat) safer place to be during any future earthquakes. Happily, that’s still true today.

PHOTOS: Top, Bernal Hill chert, by Telstar Logistics. Below, earthquake shacks in Precita Park, 1906, via Bernal History Project.

New Earthquake Zoning Maps Should Not Rattle Bernal Heights

Image snapped and modified from California Geological Survey website

Uh oh?

Last week, the California Geological Survey released its latest set of fault zoning maps. These divide the state into a rectangular grid, with the parts of the grid containing active faults marked in red. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of red throughout the state, particularly around the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Bernalwood happens to fall along the edge of one of those squares.

So, what does that mean for us? Is the ground beneath Bernal more stable now, or less?

Luckily, the new maps mean very little for us everyday residents. Living within a red square of the grid doesn’t mean the entire square is riddled with active faults that nobody knew about until very recently. It just means that, somewhere within that square, there’s at least one active fault that can cause some mayhem. In the case of the square that contains Bernal Heights, that fault is the San Andreas. The shortest distance from the top of Bernal Hill itself to any part of the San Andreas is still a good 6.25 miles.

These new maps were created primarily for the sake of real estate developers. They’re part of the Alquist-Priolo Zoning Act, which was enacted in 1972 in the wake of the 1971 M6.6 San Fernando earthquake. Aside from some strong shaking that knocked down buildings and freeway overpasses, one of the major problems with that earthquake was that strands of surface faulting popped up in people’s houses unexpectedly.

The initial Alquist-Priolo criterion was that commercial structures or large-tract housing developments may not be built within 50 feet of an active fault, to avoid the possibility that half of a house may become offset from the other half by 20 feet or so. It’s difficult to avoid strong ground motions in a fault-ridden place as California, and a 50 foot distance from the fault isn’t really going to help much in terms of shaking, but avoiding structural surface ruptures is basically as simple as knowing where the faults are.

So, what these new maps (and the older ones) mean for developers? Anyone who wants to build within one of the red squares on the grid must now consult a more specific fault map to determine where they can actually build.

And that brings us back to the question of what all this means for those of us in Bernal Heights, the rest of San Francisco, and California in general. It means — as we already knew — we live in earthquake country. The map doesn’t say anything about shaking hazard, given that closer proximity to the fault generally means higher ground motion. For that there are separate maps for potential ground motion, and they all put San Francisco in a bad place.

But within that, Bernal’s solid foundation of chert means we’ll shake less than the unconsolidated fill in places like the Marina or SoMa — even though we’re in a red box and they are not. So we’ve got that going for us