The Big One and the Space Economy: Understanding the Consequences of a Major Earthquake in California

The Big One

When Californians talk about the “big one,” they are usually referring to a major earthquake that they believe could strike the state in the future. California is located on the San Andreas Fault, which is a tectonic boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. This fault system has caused numerous earthquakes in the past, including the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and more recent ones like the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The big one, therefore, refers to the hypothetical future earthquake that many experts believe could potentially cause widespread destruction and loss of life. The magnitude of the earthquake that would be considered the big one is often debated, but it is generally thought to be a magnitude 8.0 or higher. Scientists have warned that the big one is not a matter of if, but when, and that it could strike at any time.

Earthquake Shaking Potential for California

If the long overdue “big one” earthquake were to hit California, it would have significant consequences on various industries, including the space economy. Many space-related companies have headquarters, manufacturing facilities, or launch sites in California.

California After the “Big One”…

In the event of a large earthquake, the impact on California would depend on various factors such as the magnitude of the earthquake, the location, and the time of day. The areas most likely to be affected are the major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, and buildings may be severely damaged or destroyed. Power, water, and gas supplies may also be disrupted, and communication systems may be down. The impact on individuals and communities could be significant, with potential injuries, fatalities, and displacement.

The recovery process after a major earthquake can take a significant amount of time, depending on the extent of the damage. In the short term, emergency responders and relief organizations would work to assess the situation, provide medical care, and restore essential services such as power and water. In the long term, the focus would shift to rebuilding damaged infrastructure, homes, and businesses.

The impact on supply chains would also be significant. California is a major hub for international trade, and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest in the United States. A major earthquake could disrupt the flow of goods in and out of the state, potentially causing supply chain disruptions across the country and globally.

California by the Numbers

So what is California’s significance in the economic fabric of the US and the world?

California is the most populous state in the US with over 39 million people living there (2020). California also has 8 out of 50 of the most populous municipalities in the US: San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose.

California has the 5th largest GDP in the world.

California has the highest GDP of all states, representing 14.77% of
the US GDP (2020).

California is the leading source of Federal tax revenue, contributing over $472 billion to the Federal coffers, representing 13% of total Federal tax revenue (2019).

10.6% of Fortune 500 companies have their headquarters in California (2018).

37% of total imports into the US and 21.7% of total exports out of the US flow through the Los Angeles port complex (includes port facilities in Los Angeles and Long Beach) (2018).

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the 4th largest in the US in terms of air cargo (2020).

LAX is the 5th largest in the US in terms of passenger traffic (2020).

California is the 2nd largest exporting state in the US. In 2020 California exported more than $156 billion to 227 foreign countries, representing 10.9% of US exports.

California’s top exports are: electric vehicles; civilian aircraft, engines and parts; and machines for manufacturing semiconductors.

California’s top export markets are Mexico, Canada, China, Japan and South Korea.

California imports more than any other state. In 2020 California imported more than $396 billion representing 17% of total US imports.

California’s top imports were: combustion engine vehicles; computers; parts and accessories for computers; and oil.

California’s top import markets are China, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, and Japan.

California has the most military bases (32) and the most active and reserve military personnel of all states (2021). California also has the most Navy and Marine Corps personnel based in the state compared to all the other states.

The US Department of Defense spent $66.1 billion in California in 2019, more than in any other state.

California produces 8.3% of the crude oil produced in the US (2012). However, California consumes all the oil and gas it produces and imports significant supplies mainly from foreign sources.

Amazon, Microsoft and Google collectively represent 61% of the cloud services market and all have large data centers based in California.

16 submarine communication cables land in California and support communications with the Asia-Pacific region. This represents 22% of all submarine communications cables landing in US (2019).

California is the leader in the US for production of milk and is responsible for about 18.4% of the US milk supply (2020).

California is the leader in the US for farm cash crop sales, with primary crops being fruits, nuts and vegetables, representing 19.3% of US production (2020). California agriculture is heavily dependent upon carefully managed groundwater and aqueduct water supplies.

California is tightly coupled into the US economy and the economies of it’s major trading partners Mexico, Canada and China.

Cascading Catastrophe

Within California, The Big One is expected to badly damage and disrupt: electricity generation and distribution, roads and bridges, rail lines, hospitals, municipal water and sewer services, oil and gas distribution pipelines, oil and gas storage tank yards, ports, airports, military bases and assets, agriculture water supplies, residential and commercial buildings, farming production and distribution, data centers and communications services (e.g. mobile phones, undersea communications links). Uncontrolled fires will break out in built up areas and countryside which will continue to spread destruction long after the shaking has stopped. The fires will damage or destroy buildings and structures, personal and business assets.

The costliest earthquake in the US so far has been the 1984 Los Angeles earthquake which had a financial economic cost of approximately $30 billion. The financial cost of The Big One will be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The people cost will be measured in the thousands of dead and injured, and tens of thousands will be rendered homeless.

The United States as a whole is expected to experience widespread economic turmoil, including goods and services shortages, supply chain disruptions, communications disruptions and inflation.

California and the US recovery from The Big One would take a long time, likely years. Whether California would be able to fully recover to its former glory is a matter of debate.

Potential Impacts on the Space Economy

Disruption of Operations

The earthquake could damage facilities, leading to temporary or permanent shutdowns. This would disrupt ongoing projects, satellite launches, and other space missions.

Supply Chain Interruptions

Damage to infrastructure, such as roads, ports, and airports, could hinder the transportation of raw materials, components, and finished products. This could lead to delays in satellite production, rocket launches, and other space projects.

Economic Repercussions

The destruction caused by the earthquake would require significant resources for recovery efforts, potentially diverting public and private funds away from the space industry. Additionally, insurance premiums for facilities and projects may increase.

Workforce Displacement

The earthquake could displace many employees in the space industry, leading to labor shortages and delays in ongoing projects.

Potential for Collaboration and Innovation

The earthquake could also create opportunities for companies to collaborate on disaster response and mitigation technologies, such as Earth observation satellites, remote sensing, and communication systems.

What about Vandenberg Air Force Base…

Vandenberg Air Force Base is a critical launch site for the United States, responsible for launching a variety of military, commercial, and scientific payloads into space. If the launch facilities at Vandenberg were damaged by an earthquake, the impact could be significant and would depend on several factors, such as the extent of the damage and the availability of alternative launch sites.

If Vandenberg were unable to operate for an extended period, the US would have to rely more heavily on its other launch facilities, such as Cape Canaveral in Florida, and the Kennedy Space Center. However, this could result in delays or disruptions to the launch schedule, particularly for missions that require polar orbits or other specialized trajectories that are best launched from Vandenberg.

Additionally, Vandenberg plays a critical role in national security, launching satellites that support intelligence gathering, missile defense, and other military operations. A prolonged interruption in its operations could have significant implications for national security and military readiness.

While the full impact of damage to Vandenberg’s launch facilities would depend on several factors, it is clear that the US depends heavily on the base and would need to take significant steps to mitigate any disruption to its launch schedule or national security operations.

Space Companies Operating in California

There are many space companies with facilities in California that will have their operations disrupted by a major earthquake. The companies range in size from large aerospace corporations to smaller startups, including:

  • SpaceX
  • Virgin Orbit
  • Rocket Lab
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Boeing
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Firefly Aerospace
  • Relativity Space
  • Planet Labs
  • Spire Global
  • Momentus
  • Astra Space
  • Capella Space
  • The Aerospace Company
  • Terran Orbital
  • Maxar
  • Varda Space Industries

This list is not exhaustive, as there are many more companies and startups in California involved in various aspects of the space economy. The state’s strong presence in the industry can be attributed to its proximity to major research institutions, a highly skilled workforce, and a history of aerospace innovation.


A major earthquake would have a significant impact on California’s infrastructure, communities, and supply chains. The recovery process could take years, and the impact could be felt far beyond the state’s borders.

While it is difficult to predict the exact extent of the impact on the space economy, a major earthquake in California would undoubtedly have significant short- and long-term consequences for the industry.

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