The study looked at data from previous and new seismic surveys that included sonar studies of the offshore fault. Geological evidence of ancient earthquakes suggests that the fault has ruptured between three and five times in the past 11,000 years.
The study conducted by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, examined the Newport-Inglewood and Rose Canyon systems which were earlier believed to be unconnected. For three decades, some scientists had assumed that the two faults were actually one continuous line, but this was hard to prove, as the gap between the two systems was located beneath the Pacific Ocean between Newport Beach and La Jolla.
And it's capable of producing an up to 7.4 magnitude natural disaster.
The team identified four segments of the fault that are horizontally offset in a pattern known as stepovers.
So Scharer and other scientists undertook the most intensive study of its kind in this section of the San Andreas fault, where researchers could hear the roar of traffic from Interstate 5.
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This Temblor figure shows the Southern California coastline both with and without faults.
The massive fault system, which was previously considered as two separate faults, runs from San Diego Bay to Seal Beach, Orange County, and finally moves on the shore to the Los Angeles Basin.
Two natural disaster faults known for decades as potential threats to Southern California have been re-evaluated by scientists, who on Tuesday said the pair actually are a single fault that is capable of more damage than previously believed.
The last major quake to strike along the Newport-Inglewood and Rose Canyon fault zone was in 1933.
The findings raise concerns since a powerful natural disaster can have a major impact on the affected regions, which include the most densely populated parts of California.
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"Longer gaps have happened in the past, but we know they always do culminate in a large quake".
If a rupture affects the southern onshore portion of the fault zone, the event would be even greater, according to the study.
"This system is mostly offshore but never more than four miles from the San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles County coast", said Valerie Sahakian, who led the study during her doctorate at Scripps.
According to the study, if the offshore sections split, a magnitude-7.3 quake could be produced and up to magnitude-7.4 if the onshore segments fissure. Solid Earth, 122, doi:10.1002/2016JB013467.
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