The island of Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela, sits above a risky earthquake zone, a new study reveals.
The Central Range fault , previously thought to be inactive, runs through the heart of the island, said geologist and study team member Carol Prentice of the U.S. Geological Survey. The new study, the first geologic investigation of the Central Range fault, found that this fault is capable of unleashing massive earthquakes similar to the 7.0-magnitude quake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12.
The Central Range fault is a major part of the boundary between the Caribbean and South American tectonic plates. These plates are rocky slabs that cover the planet and fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
These plates slowly slide past and into one another as they move across the Earth's surface. But while the plates creep along the Caribbean plate is moving at roughly 0.79 inches (20 millimeters) per year their touching boundaries can become stuck against one another, which builds up stress along the fault.
The Caribbean isn't exactly a hot zone for earthquakes, but they are not unheard of in the region. The most recent earthquake along the Central Range fault struck between 2,710 and 550 years ago, the study revealed. Since that time, enough stress has built up in the fault that it could produce a similar earthquake (greater than 7.0 magnitude) in the future, said the researchers.
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti occurred at a fault, called the Enriquillo fault, that runs right through Haiti and is situated along the boundary between the Caribbean and North American plates.