Historic Ground Failures in Northern California Triggered by Earthquakes

Professional Paper 993




A major source of earthquake-related damage and casualties in northern California has been ground failures generated by the seismic shaking, including landslides, lateral spreads, ground settlement, and surface cracks. The historical record shows that, except for offshore shocks, the geographic area affected and the quantity and general severity of ground failures increase markedly with Richter magnitude. Hence, the largest historical event, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, has been the most important generator of ground failures. Because of recent population growth and land development in northern California, the potential for damage in future events is enormous compared with that existing in 1906. Reports of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and other northern California earthquakes and descriptions of ground failures therein are used to (1) identify and clarify the types of ground failures associated with earthquakes, (2) provide a guide for engineers, planners, and others responsible for minimizing seismic hazards, and (3) form a data base for other geotechnical studies of earthquake-triggered pound failures. Geologic, hydrologic, and topographic setting have an important influence on ground failure development as well as distance from the causative fault. Areas especially vulnerable to ground failure in northern California have been oversteepened slopes, such as mountain cliffs, streambanks, and coastal bluffs, and lowland deposits, principally Holocene fluvial deposits, deltaic deposits, and poorly compacted fills. Liquefaction has been the direct cause of most lowland failures. The historical record suggests that ground failures during future large earthquakes are most likely to occur at the same or geologically similar locations as failures during previous earhquakes.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Historic Ground Failures in Northern California Triggered by Earthquakes
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
Geological Survey (U.S.)
Contributing office(s):
Western Earthquake Hazards Team
Report: iv, 177 p.; 5 Plates - Plate 1: 34 x 21 inches; Plate 2: 29 x 21 inches; Plate 3: 27 x 27 inches; Plate 4: 33 x 21 inches; Plate 5: 16 x 22 inches
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):