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Nevada is the third most seismically active state, following Alaska and California.
On July 5, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake centered on the California town of Ridgecrest rattled Las Vegas. In the days since, shaking has continued in the area, with a smaller quake striking on Friday.
Researchers say northern Nevada faces the risk of a large quake, too. A swarm of 60 small tremors in June were a reminder that faults in that part of the state can shift dramatically at any time.
UNR’s Nevada Seismological Lab keeps a close eye on earthquake activity in the state. It just hosted a conference to study earthquake risks and help people prepare, especially in urban areas where the population is growing rapidly.
Graham Kent is the director of the lab. He told KNPR's State of Nevada it is not a matter of 'if' there will be a large quake in Reno but 'when.'
"We will have one right underneath our city because all of the fault lines - the significant ones - are capable of a magnitude of about 7 to 7.2," he said.
When that large quake hits Reno, Kent warns the city will see significant damage.
"The city would stop functioning as we know it," he said, "It would take a generation to build out of it."
He said the city would look like Christchurch, New Zealand, which suffered a 6.3 quake in 2011.
With that dire warning, Kent said the best thing Reno can do is prepare now for the Big One.
"If we really prepared and do everything right, we can reduce the loss of life and infrastructure and try to make that from a generation to maybe a decade," he said.
There are also fault lines running through Southern Nevada that are capable of producing a magnitude 6 earthquake, Kent said, but the lines don't go directly under the city like in Reno and they don't have the same return time as those in Reno. Return time refers to the average time between events, Kent said. Northern Nevada faults have a much quicker return time than those in the south.
However, it doesn't mean the Las Vegas Valley isn't at risk, he said. The faults in Southern Nevada have a return time of 500 to 1,000 years but we don't know where we are in that cycle.
In addition, the fault that caused the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011 was on a 1,000-year cycle as well.
Kent said the biggest potential problem for Southern Nevada isn't those fault lines but the faults near the California-Nevada border in Death Valley.
"The Death Valley fault system, really three faults, if they link together, it's about a magnitude 7.8, and oddly, if it ruptures from north to south, then it funnels a lot of energy into the Las Vegas basin in a way similar to Mexico City, which is not a good outcome," he said.
The seismology lab recently held a workshop to talk about what they know and what they don't know about quakes in Nevada. Kent said knowledge of plate tectonics, earthquakes and fault lines has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and the lab wanted to look at what studies have been done and what areas need more work.
While that work is important, Kent believes scientists have a bigger job than collecting and analyzing data.
"As scientists, we can go out and scientific all we want, but if we don't get the communities engaged, we don't get the governmental structures engaged, I'll just take you back to that large event that will happen in both cities... if we don't prepare, we're going to be a world of hurt," he said.
Kent advises that everyone in Nevada get earthquake insurance on their homes so entire communities can withstand a large quake.
Graham Kent, director, UNR’s Nevada Seismological Lab
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