EARTHQUAKES induce changes in static stress on neighbouring faults that may delay, hasten or even trigger subsequent earthquakes1-10. The length of time over which such effects persist has a bearing on the potential contribution of stress analyses to earthquake hazard assessment, but is presently unknown. Here we use an elastic half-space model11 to estimate the static stress changes generated by damaging (magnitude M???5) earthquakes in southern California over the past 26 years, and to investigate the influence of these changes on subsequent earthquake activity. We find that, in the 1.5-year period following a M???5 earthquake, any subsequent nearby M???5 earthquake almost always ruptures a fault that is loaded towards failure by the first earthquake. After this period, damaging earthquakes are equally likely to rupture loaded and relaxed faults. Our results suggest that there is a short period of time following a damaging earthquake in southern California in which simple Coulomb failure stress models could be used to identify regions of increased seismic hazard. ?? 1995 Nature Publishing Group.